What is the Behaviour Analysis of Child Development?


The behavioural analysis of child development originates from John B. Watson’s behaviourism.

Brief History

In 1948, Sidney Bijou took a position as associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington and served as director of the university’s Institute of Child Development. Under his leadership, the Institute added a child development clinic and nursery school classrooms where they conducted research that would later accumulate into the are that would be called “Behaviour Analysis of Child Development”. Skinner’s behavioural approach and Kantor’s interbehavioural approach were adopted in Bijou and Baer’s model. They created a three-stage model of development (basic, foundational, and societal). Bijou and Baer looked at these socially determined stages, as opposed to organising behaviour into change points or cusps (behavioural cusp). In the behavioural model, development is considered a behavioural change. It is dependent on the kind of stimulus and the person’s behavioural and learning function. Behaviour analysis in child development takes a mechanistic, contextual, and pragmatic approach.

From its inception, the behavioural model has focused on prediction and control of the developmental process. The model focuses on the analysis of a behaviour and then synthesizes the action to support the original behaviour. The model was changed after Richard J. Herrnstein studied the matching law of choice behaviour developed by studying of reinforcement in the natural environment. More recently, the model has focused more on behaviour over time and the way that behavioural responses become repetitive. it has become concerned with how behaviour is selected over time and forms into stable patterns of responding. A detailed history of this model was written by Pelaez. In 1995, Henry D. Schlinger, Jr. provided the first behaviour analytic text since Bijou and Baer comprehensively showed how behaviour analysis – a natural science approach to human behaviour – could be used to understand existing research in child development. In addition, the quantitative behavioural developmental model by Commons and Miller is the first behavioural theory and research to address notion similar to stage.

Research Methods

The methods used to analyse behaviour in child development are based on several types of measurements. Single-subject research with a longitudinal study follow-up is a commonly-used approach. Current research is focused on integrating single-subject designs through meta-analysis to determine the effect sizes of behavioural factors in development. Lag sequential analysis has become popular for tracking the stream of behaviour during observations. Group designs are increasingly being used. Model construction research involves latent growth modelling to determine developmental trajectories and structural equation modelling. Rasch analysis is now widely used to show sequentially within a developmental trajectory.

A recent methodological change in the behavioural analytic theory is the use of observational methods combined with lag sequential analysis can determine reinforcement in the natural setting.

Quantitative Behavioural Development

The model of hierarchical complexity is a quantitative analytic theory of development. This model offers an explanation for why certain tasks are acquired earlier than others through developmental sequences and gives an explanation of the biological, cultural, organisational, and individual principles of performance. It quantifies the order of hierarchical complexity of a task based on explicit and mathematical measurements of behaviour.


Contingencies, Uncertainty, and Attachment

The behavioural model of attachment recognises the role of uncertainty in an infant and the child’s limited communication abilities. Contingent relationships are instrumental in the behaviour analytic theory, because much emphasis is put on those actions that produce parents’ responses.

The importance of contingency appears to be highlighted in other developmental theories, but the behavioural model recognises that contingency must be determined by two factors:

  • The efficiency of the action; and
  • That efficiency compared to other tasks that the infant might perform at that point.

Both infants and adults function in their environments by understanding these contingent relationships. Research has shown that contingent relationships lead to emotionally satisfying relationships.

Since 1961, behavioural research has shown that there is relationship between the parents’ responses to separation from the infant and outcomes of a “stranger situation.”. In a study done in 2000, six infants participated in a classic reversal design (refer to single-subject research) study that assessed infant approach rate to a stranger. If attention was based on stranger avoidance, the infant avoided the stranger. If attention was placed on infant approach, the infant approached the stranger.

Recent meta-analytic studies of this model of attachment based on contingency found a moderate effect of contingency on attachment, which increased to a large effect size when the quality of reinforcement was considered. Other research on contingency highlights its effect on the development of both pro-social and anti-social behaviour. These effects can also be furthered by training parents to become more sensitive to children’s behaviours, Meta-analytic research supports the notion that attachment is operant-based learning.

An infant’s sensitivity to contingencies can be affected by biological factors and environment changes. Studies show that being placed in erratic environments with few contingencies may cause a child to have conduct problems and may lead to depression (see Behavioural Development and Depression below). Research continues to look at the effects of learning-based attachment on moral development. Some studies have shown that erratic use of contingencies by parents early in life can produce devastating long-term effects for the child.

Motor Development

Since Watson developed the theory of behaviourism, behaviour analysts have held that motor development represents a conditioning process. This holds that crawling, climbing, and walking displayed by infants represents conditioning of biologically innate reflexes. In this case, the reflex of stepping is the respondent behaviour and these reflexes are environmentally conditioned through experience and practice. This position was criticised by maturation theorists. They believed that the stepping reflex for infants actually disappeared over time and was not “continuous”. By working with a slightly different theoretical model, while still using operant conditioning, Esther Thelen was able to show that children’s stepping reflex disappears as a function of increased physical weight. However, when infants were placed in water, that same stepping reflex returned. This offered a model for the continuity of the stepping reflex and the progressive stimulation model for behaviour analysts.

Infants deprived of physical stimulation or the opportunity to respond were found to have delayed motor development. Under conditions of extra stimulation, the motor behaviour of these children rapidly improved. Some research has shown that the use of a treadmill can be beneficial to children with motor delays including Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Research on opportunity to respond and the building of motor development continues today.

The behavioural development model of motor activity has produced a number of techniques, including operant-based biofeedback to facilitate development with success. Some of the stimulation methods such as operant-based biofeedback have been applied as treatment to children with cerebral palsy and even spinal injury successfully. Brucker’s group demonstrated that specific operant conditioning-based biofeedback procedures can be effective in establishing more efficient use of remaining and surviving central nervous system cells after injury or after birth complications (like cerebral palsy). While such methods are not a cure and gains tend to be in the moderate range, they do show ability to enhance functioning.

Imitation and Verbal Behavior

Behaviourists have studied verbal behaviour since the 1920s. E.A. Esper (1920) studied associative models of language, which has evolved into the current language interventions of matrix training and recombinative generalisation. Skinner (1957) created a comprehensive taxonomy of language for speakers. Baer, along with Zettle and Haynes (1989), provided a developmental analysis of rule-governed behaviour for the listener. and for the listener Zettle and Hayes (1989) with Don Baer providing a developmental analysis of rule-governed behaviour. According to Skinner, language learning depends on environmental variables, which can be mastered by a child through imitation, practice, and selective reinforcement including automatic reinforcement.

B.F. Skinner was one of the first psychologists to take the role of imitation in verbal behaviour as a serious mechanism for acquisition. He identified echoic behaviour as one of his basic verbal operants, postulating that verbal behaviour was learned by an infant from a verbal community. Skinner’s account takes verbal behaviour beyond an intra-individual process to an inter-individual process. He defined verbal behaviour as “behaviour reinforced through the mediation of others”. Noam Chomsky refuted Skinner’s assumptions.

In the behavioural model, the child is prepared to contact the contingencies to “join” the listener and speaker. At the very core, verbal episodes involve the rotation of the roles as speaker and listener. These kinds of exchanges are called conversational units and have been the focus of research at Columbia’s communication disorders department.

Conversational units is a measure of socialisation because they consist of verbal interactions in which the exchange is reinforced by both the speaker and the listener. H.C. Chu (1998) demonstrated contextual conditions for inducing and expanding conversational units between children with autism and non-handicapped siblings in two separate experiments. The acquisition of conversational units and the expansion of verbal behaviour decrease incidences of physical “aggression” in the Chu study and several other reviews suggest similar effects. The joining of the listener and speaker progresses from listener speaker rotations with others as a likely precedent for the three major components of speaker-as-own listener – say so correspondence, self-talk conversational units, and naming.

Development of Self

Robert Kohelenberg and Mavis Tsai (1991) created a behaviour analytic model accounting for the development of one’s “self”. Their model proposes that verbal processes can be used to form a stable sense of who we are through behavioural processes such as stimulus control. Kohlenberg and Tsai developed functional analytic psychotherapy to treat psychopathological disorders arising from the frequent invalidations of a child’s statements such that “I” does not emerge. Other behaviour analytic models for personality disorders exist. They trace out the complex biological-environmental interaction for the development of avoidant and borderline personality disorders. They focus on Reinforcement sensitivity theory, which states that some individuals are more or less sensitive to reinforcement than others. Nelson-Grey views problematic response classes as being maintained by reinforcing consequences or through rule governance.


Over the last few decades, studies have supported the idea that contingent use of reinforcement and punishment over extended periods of time lead to the development of both pro-social and anti-social behaviours. However research has shown that reinforcement is more effective than punishment when teaching behaviour to a child. It has also been shown that modelling is more effective than “preaching” in developing pro-social behaviour in children. Rewards have also been closely studied in relation to the development of social behaviours in children. The building of self-control, empathy, and cooperation has all implicated rewards as a successful tactic, while sharing has been strongly linked with reinforcement.

The development of social skills in children is largely affected in that classroom setting by both teachers and peers. Reinforcement and punishment play major roles here as well. Peers frequently reinforce each other’s behaviour. One of the major areas that teachers and peers influence is sex-typed behaviour, while peers also largely influence modes of initiating interaction, and aggression. Peers are more likely to punish cross-gender play while at the same time reinforcing play specific to gender. Some studies found that teachers were more likely to reinforce dependent behaviour in females.

Behavioural principles have also been researched in emerging peer groups, focusing on status. Research shows that it takes different social skills to enter groups than it does to maintain or build one’s status in groups. Research also suggests that neglected children are the least interactive and aversive, yet remain relatively unknown in groups. Children suffering from social problems do see an improvement in social skills after behaviour therapy and behaviour modification (refer to applied behaviour analysis). Modelling has been successfully used to increase participation by shy and withdrawn children. Shaping of socially desirable behaviour through positive reinforcement seems to have some of the most positive effects in children experiencing social problems.

Anti-Social Behaviour

In the development of anti-social behaviour, aetiological models for anti-social behaviour show considerable correlation with negative reinforcement and response matching (refer to matching law). Escape conditioning, through the use of coercive behaviour, has a powerful effect on the development and use of future anti-social tactics. The use of anti-social tactics during conflicts can be negatively reinforced and eventually seen as functional for the child in moment to moment interactions. Anti-social behaviours will also develop in children when imitation is reinforced by social approval. If approval is not given by teachers or parents, it can often be given by peers. An example of this is swearing. Imitating a parent, brother, peer, or a character on TV, a child may engage in the anti-social behaviour of swearing. Upon saying it they may be reinforced by those around them which will lead to an increase in the anti-social behaviour. The role of stimulus control has also been extensively explored in the development of anti-social behaviour. Recent behavioural focus in the study of anti-social behaviour has been a focus on rule-governed behaviour. While correspondence for saying and doing has long been an interest for behaviour analysts in normal development and typical socialisation, recent conceptualisations have been built around families that actively train children in anti-social rules, as well as children who fail to develop rule control.

Developmental Depression with Origins in Childhood

Behavioural theory of depression was outlined by Charles Ferster. A later revision was provided by Peter Lewisohn and Hyman Hops. Hops continued the work on the role of negative reinforcement in maintaining depression with Anthony Biglan. Additional factors such as the role of loss of contingent relations through extinction and punishment were taken from early work of Martin Seligman. The most recent summary and conceptual revisions of the behavioural model was provided by Johnathan Kanter. The standard model is that depression has multiple paths to develop. It can be generated by five basic processes, including: lack or loss of positive reinforcement, direct positive or negative reinforcement for depressive behaviour, lack of rule-governed behaviour or too much rule-governed behaviour, and/or too much environmental punishment. For children, some of these variables could set the pattern for lifelong problems. For example, a child whose depressive behaviour functions for negative reinforcement by stopping fighting between parents could develop a lifelong pattern of depressive behaviour in the case of conflicts. Two paths that are particularly important are:

  1. Lack or loss of reinforcement because of missing necessary skills at a developmental cusp point; or
  2. The failure to develop adequate rule-governed behaviour.

For the latter, the child could develop a pattern of always choosing the short-term small immediate reward (i.e. escaping studying for a test) at the expense of the long-term larger reward (passing courses in middle school). The treatment approach that emerged from this research is called behavioural activation.

In addition, use of positive reinforcement has been shown to improve symptoms of depression in children. Reinforcement has also been shown to improve the self-concept in children with depression comorbid with learning difficulties. Rawson and Tabb (1993) used reinforcement with 99 students (90 males and 9 females) aged from 8 to 12 with behaviour disorders in a residential treatment program and showed significant reduction in depression symptoms compared to the control group.

Cognitive Behaviour

As children get older, direct control of contingencies is modified by the presence of rule-governed behaviour. Rules serve as an establishing operation and set a motivational stage as well as a discrimintative stage for behaviour. While the size of the effects on intellectual development are less clear, it appears that stimulation does have a facilitative effect on intellectual ability. However, it is important to be sure not to confuse the enhancing effect with the initial causal effect. Some data exists to show that children with developmental delays take more learning trials to acquire in material.

Learned Units and Developmental Retardation

Behaviour analysts have spent considerable time measuring learning in both the classroom and at home. In these settings, the role of a lack of stimulation has often been evidenced in the development of mild and moderate mental retardation. Recent work has focused on a model of “developmental retardation,”. an area that emphasizes cumulative environmental effects and their role in developmental delays. To measure these developmental delays, subjects are given the opportunity to respond, defined as the instructional antecedent, and success is signified by the appropriate response and/or fluency in responses. Consequently, the learned unit is identified by the opportunity to respond in addition to given reinforcement.

One study employed this model by comparing students’ time of instruction was in affluent schools to time of instruction in lower income schools. Results showed that lower income schools displayed approximately 15 minutes less instruction than more affluent schools due to disruptions in classroom management and behaviour management. Altogether, these disruptions culminated into two years worth of lost instructional time by grade 10. The goal of behaviour analytic research is to provide methods for reducing the overall number of children who fall into the retardation range of development by behavioural engineering.

Hart and Risely (1995, 1999) have completed extensive research on this topic as well. These researchers measured the rates of parent communication with children of the ages of 2-4 years and correlated this information with the IQ scores of the children at age 9. Their analyses revealed that higher parental communication with younger children was positively correlated with higher IQ in older children, even after controlling for race, class, and socio-economic status. Additionally, they concluded a significant change in IQ scores required intervention with at-risk children for approximately 40 hours per week.

Class Formation

The formation of class-like behaviour has also been a significant aspect in the behavioural analysis of development. This research has provided multiple explanations to the development and formation of class-like behaviour, including primary stimulus generalisation, an analysis of abstraction, relational frame theory, stimulus class analysis (sometimes referred to as recombinative generalisation), stimulus equivalence, and response class analysis. Multiple processes for class-like formation provide behaviour analysts with relatively pragmatic explanations for common issues of novelty and generalisation.

Responses are organised based upon the particular form needed to fit the current environmental challenges as well as the functional consequences. An example of large response classes lies in contingency adduction, which is an area that needs much further research, especially with a focus on how large classes of concepts shift. For example, as Piaget observed, individuals have a tendency at the pre-operational stage to have limits in their ability to preserve information. While children’s training in the development of conservation skills has been generally successful, complications have been noted. Behaviour analysts argue that this is largely due to the number of tool skills that need to be developed and integrated. Contingency adduction offers a process by which such skills can be synthesized and which shows why it deserves further attention, particularly by early childhood interventionists.


Ferster (1961) was the first researcher to posit a behaviour analytic theory for autism. Ferster’s model saw autism as a by-product of social interactions between parent and child. Ferster presented an analysis of how a variety of contingencies of reinforcement between parent and child during early childhood might establish and strengthen a repertoire of behaviours typically seen in children diagnosed with autism. A similar model was proposed by Drash and Tutor (1993), who developed the contingency-shaped or behavioural incompatibility theory of autism. They identified at least six reinforcement paradigms that may contribute to significant deficiencies in verbal behaviour typically characteristic of children diagnosed as autistic. They proposed that each of these paradigms may also create a repertoire of avoidance responses that could contribute to the establishment of a repertoire of behaviour that would be incompatible with the acquisition of age-appropriate verbal behaviour. More recent models attribute autism to neurological and sensory models that are overly worked and subsequently produce the autistic repertoire. Lovaas and Smith (1989) proposed that children with autism have a mismatch between their nervous systems and the environment, while Bijou and Ghezzi (1999) proposed a behavioural interference theory. However, both the environmental mismatch model and the inference model were recently reviewed, and new evidence shows support for the notion that the development of autistic behaviours are due to escape and avoidance of certain types of sensory stimuli. However, most behavioural models of autism remain largely speculative due to limited research efforts.

Role in Education

One of the largest impacts of behaviour analysis of child development is its role in the field of education. In 1968, Siegfried Englemann used operant conditioning techniques in a combination with rule learning to produce the direct instruction curriculum. In addition, Fred S. Keller used similar techniques to develop programmed instruction. B.F. Skinner developed a programmed instruction curriculum for teaching handwriting. One of Skinner’s students, Ogden Lindsley, developed a standardized semilogrithmic chart, the “Standard Behaviour Chart,” now “Standard Celeration Chart,” used to record frequencies of behaviour, and to allow direct visual comparisons of both frequencies and changes in those frequencies (termed “celeration”). The use of this charting tool for analysis of instructional effects or other environmental variables through the direct measurement of learner performance has become known as precision teaching.

Behaviour analysts with a focus on behavioural development form the basis of a movement called positive behaviour support (PBS). PBS has focused on building safe schools.

In education, there are many different kinds of learning that are implemented to improve skills needed for interactions later in life. Examples of this differential learning include social and language skills. According to the NWREL (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory), too much interaction with technology will hinder a child’s social interactions with others due to its potential to become an addiction and subsequently lead to anti-social behaviour. In terms of language development, children will start to learn and know about 5-20 different words by 18 months old.

Critiques of Behavioural Approach and New Developments

Behaviour analytic theories have been criticized for their focus on the explanation of the acquisition of relatively simple behaviour (i.e. the behaviour of nonhuman species, of infants, and of individuals who are intellectually disabled or autistic) rather than of complex behaviour. Michael Commons continued behaviour analysis’s rejection of mentalism and the substitution of a task analysis of the particular skills to be learned. In his new model, Commons has created a behaviour analytic model of more complex behaviour in line with more contemporary quantitative behaviour analytic models called the model of hierarchical complexity. Commons constructed the model of hierarchical complexity of tasks and their corresponding stages of performance using just three main axioms.

In the study of development, recent work has been generated regarding the combination of behaviour analytic views with dynamical systems theory. The added benefit of this approach is its portrayal of how small patterns of changes in behaviour in terms of principles and mechanisms over time can produce substantial changes in development.

Current research in behaviour analysis attempts to extend the patterns learned in childhood and to determine their impact on adult development.

Professional Organisations

The Association for Behaviour Analysis International has a special interest group for the behaviour analysis of child development.

Doctoral level behaviour analysts who are psychologists belong to American Psychological Association’s division 25: behaviour analysis.

The World Association for Behaviour Analysis has a certification in behaviour therapy. The exam draws questions on behavioural theories of child development as well as behavioural theories of child psychopathology.

What is True Self and False Self?


True self (also known as real self, authentic self, original self and vulnerable self) and false self (also known as fake self, idealised self, superficial self and pseudo self) are psychological concepts, originally introduced into psychoanalysis in 1960 by Donald Winnicott.

Winnicott used true self to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a feeling of being alive, having a real self. The false self, by contrast, Winnicott saw as a defensive façade, which in extreme cases could leave its holders lacking spontaneity and feeling dead and empty, behind a mere appearance of being real.

The concepts are often used in connection with narcissism.


Winnicott saw the true self as rooted from early infancy in the experience of being alive, including blood pumping and lungs breathing – what Winnicott called simply being. Out of this, the baby creates the experience of a sense of reality, a sense that life is worth living. The baby’s spontaneous, nonverbal gestures derive from that instinctual sense, and if responded to by the parents, become the basis for the continuing development of the true self.

However, when what Winnicott was careful to describe as good enough parenting – i.e., not necessarily perfect – was not in place, the infant’s spontaneity was in danger of being encroached on by the need for compliance with the parents’ wishes/expectations. The result for Winnicott could be the creation of what he called the false self, where “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being”. The danger he saw was that “through this false self, the infant builds up a false set of relationships, and by means of introjections even attains a show of being real”, while, in fact, merely concealing a barren emptiness behind an independent-seeming façade.

The danger was particularly acute where the baby had to provide attunement for the mother/parents, rather than vice versa, building up a sort of dissociated recognition of the object on an impersonal, not personal and spontaneous basis. But while such a pathological false self stifled the spontaneous gestures of the true self in favour of a lifeless imitation, Winnicott nevertheless considered it of vital importance in preventing something worse: the annihilating experience of the exploitation of the hidden true self itself.


There was much in psychoanalytic theory on which Winnicott could draw for his concept of the false self. Helene Deutsch had described the “as if” personalities, with their pseudo relationships substituting for real ones. Winnicott’s analyst, Joan Riviere, had explored the concept of the narcissist’s masquerade – superficial assent concealing a subtle hidden struggle for control. Freud’s own late theory of the ego as the product of identifications came close to viewing it only as a false self; while Winnicott’s true/false distinction has also been compared to Michael Balint’s “basic fault” and to Ronald Fairbairn’s notion of the “compromised ego”.

Erich Fromm, in his book The Fear of Freedom distinguished between original self and pseudo self – the inauthenticality of the latter being a way to escape the loneliness of freedom; while much earlier the existentialist like Kierkegaard had claimed that “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair” – the despair of choosing “to be another than himself”.

Karen Horney, in her 1950 book, Neurosis and Human Growth, based her idea of “true self” and “false self” through the view of self-improvement, interpreting it as real self and ideal self, with the real self being what one currently is and the ideal self being what one could become.

Later Developments

The second half of the twentieth century has seen Winnicott’s ideas extended and applied in a variety of contexts, both in psychoanalysis and beyond.


Heinz Kohut extended Winnicott’s work in his investigation of narcissism, seeing narcissists as evolving a defensive armour around their damaged inner selves. He considered it less pathological to identify with the damaged remnants of the self, than to achieve coherence through identification with an external personality at the cost of one’s own autonomous creativity.


Alexander Lowen identified narcissists as having a true and a false, or superficial, self. The false self rests on the surface, as the self presented to the world. It stands in contrast to the true self, which resides behind the façade or image. This true self is the feeling self, but for the narcissist the feeling self must be hidden and denied. Since the superficial self represents submission and conformity, the inner or true self is rebellious and angry. This underlying rebellion and anger can never be fully suppressed since it is an expression of the life force in that person. But because of the denial, it cannot be expressed directly. Instead it shows up in the narcissist’s acting out. And it can become a perverse force.


James F. Masterson argued that all the personality disorders crucially involve the conflict between a person’s two selves: the false self, which the very young child constructs to please the mother, and the true self. The psychotherapy of personality disorders is an attempt to put people back in touch with their real selves.


Neville Symington developed Winnicott’s contrast between true and false self to cover the sources of personal action, contrasting an autonomous and a discordant source of action – the latter drawn from the internalisation of external influences and pressures. Thus for example parental dreams of self-glorification by way of their child’s achievements can be internalised as an alien discordant source of action. Symington stressed however the intentional element in the individual’s abandoning the autonomous self in favour of a false self or narcissistic mask – something he considered Winnicott to have overlooked.


As part of what has been described as a personal mission to raise the profile of the condition, psychology professor (and self-confessed narcissist) Sam Vaknin has highlighted the role of the false self in narcissism. The false self replaces the narcissist’s true self and is intended to shield him from hurt and narcissistic injury by self-imputing omnipotence. The narcissist pretends that his false self is real and demands that others affirm this confabulation, meanwhile keeping his real imperfect true self under wraps.

For Vaknin, the false self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional true self; and he does not subscribe to the view that the true self can be resuscitated through therapy.


Alice Miller cautiously warns that a child/patient may not have any formed true self, waiting behind the false self façade; and that as a result freeing the true self is not as simple as the Winnicottian image of the butterfly emerging from its cocoon. If a true self can be developed, however, she considered that the empty grandiosity of the false self could give way to a new sense of autonomous vitality.

Orbach (False Bodies)

Susie Orbach saw the false self as an overdevelopment (under parental pressure) of certain aspects of the self at the expense of other aspects – of the full potential of the self – producing thereby an abiding distrust of what emerges spontaneously from the individual himself or herself. Orbach went on to extend Winnicott’s account of how environmental failure can lead to an inner splitting of mind and body, so as to cover the idea of the false body – falsified sense of one’s own body. Orbach saw the female false body in particular as built upon identifications with others, at the cost of an inner sense of authenticity and reliability. Breaking up a monolithic but false body-sense in the process of therapy could allow for the emergence of a range of authentic (even if often painful) body feelings in the patient.

Jungian Persona

Jungians have explored the overlap between Carl Jung’s concept of the persona and Winnicott’s false self; but, while noting similarities, consider that only the most rigidly defensive persona approximates to the pathological status of the false self.

Stern’s Tripartite Self

Daniel Stern considered Winnicott’s sense of “going on being” as constitutive of the core, pre-verbal self. He also explored how language could be used to reinforce a false sense of self, leaving the true self linguistically opaque and disavowed. He ended, however, by proposing a three-fold division of social, private, and of disavowed self.


Neville Symington criticised Winnicott for failing to integrate his false self insight with the theory of ego and id. Similarly, continental analysts like Jean-Bertrand Pontalis have made use of true/false self as a clinical distinction, while having reservations about its theoretical status.

The philosopher Michel Foucault took issue more broadly with the concept of a true self on the anti-essentialist grounds that the self was a construct – something one had to evolve through a process of subjectification, an aesthetics of self-formation, not something simply waiting to be uncovered: “we have to create ourselves as a work of art”.

Literary Examples

  • Wuthering Heights has been interpreted in terms of the true self’s struggle to break through the conventional overlay.
  • In the novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the heroine saw her outward personality as a mere ghost of a Semblance, behind which her true self hid ever more completely.
  • Sylvia Plath’s poetry has been interpreted in terms of the conflict of the true and false selves.

What is Rigidity (Psychology)?


In psychology, rigidity or mental rigidity refers to an obstinate inability to yield or a refusal to appreciate another person’s viewpoint or emotions characterised by a lack of empathy.

It can also refer to the tendency to perseverate, which is the inability to change habits and the inability to modify concepts and attitudes once developed. A specific example of rigidity is functional fixedness, which is a difficulty conceiving new uses for familiar objects.


Rigidity is an ancient part of our human cognition. Systematic research on rigidity can be found tracing back to Gestalt psychologists, going as far back as the late 19th to early 20th century with Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka in Germany. With more than 100 years of research on the matter there is some established and clear data. Nonetheless, there is still much controversy surrounding several of the fundamental aspects of rigidity. In the early stages of approaching the idea of rigidity, it is treated as “a unidimensional continuum ranging from rigid at one end to flexible at the other”. This idea dates back to the 1800s and was later articulated by Charles Spearman who described it as mental inertia. Prior to 1960 many definitions for the term rigidity were afloat. One example includes Kurt Goldstein’s, which he stated, “adherence to a present performance in an inadequate way”, another being Milton Rokeach saying the definition was, “[the] inability to change one’s set when the objective conditions demand it”. Others have simplified rigidity down to stages for easy defining. Generally, it is agreed upon that it is evidenced by the identification of mental or behavioural sets.

Lewin and Kounin also proposed a theory of cognitive rigidity (also called Lewin-Kounin formulation) based on a Gestalt perspective and they used it to explain a behaviour in mentally retarded persons that is inflexible, repetitive, and unchanging. The theory proposed that it is caused by a greater “stiffness” or impermeability between inner-personal regions of individuals, which influence behaviour. Rigidity was particularly explored in Lewin’s views regarding the degree of differentiation among children. He posited that a mentally retarded child can be distinguished from the normal child due to the smaller capacity for dynamic rearrangement in terms of his psychical systems.

Mental Set

Mental sets represent a form of rigidity in which an individual behaves or believes in a certain way due to prior experience. The reverse of this is termed cognitive flexibility. These mental sets may not always be consciously recognised by the bearer. In the field of psychology, mental sets are typically examined in the process of problem solving, with an emphasis on the process of breaking away from particular mental sets into formulation of insight. Breaking mental sets in order to successfully resolve problems fall under three typical stages:

  1. Tendency to solve a problem in a fixed way;
  2. Unsuccessfully solving a problem using methods suggested by prior experience; and
  3. Realising that the solution requires different methods.

Components of high executive functioning, such as the interplay between working memory and inhibition, are essential to effective switching between mental sets for different situations. Individual differences in mental sets vary, with one study producing a variety of cautious and risky strategies in individual responses to a reaction time test.


Rigidity can be a learned behavioural trait for example the subject has a Parent, Boss or Teacher who demonstrated the same form of behaviour towards them


Rigidity has three different main “stages” of severity, although it never has to move to further stages.

  • The first stage is a strict perception that causes one to persist in their ways and be close-minded to other things.
  • The second involves a motive to defend the ego.
  • The third stage is that it is a part of one’s personality and you can see it in their perception, cognition, and social interactions.

Accompanying Externalising Behaviours

They could be external behaviours, such as the following:

  • Insistently repetitious behaviour.
  • Difficulty with unmet expectations.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Compulsions (as in OCD).
  • Perseveration.

Accompanying Internalising Behaviours

Internalizing behaviours also are shown:

  • Perfectionism.
  • Obsessions (as in OCD).

Associated Conditions

Cognitive Closure

Mental rigidity often features a high need for cognitive closure, meaning that they assign explanations prematurely to things with a determination that this is truth, finding that resolution of the dissonance as reassuring as finding the truth. Then, there is little reason to correct their unconscious misattributions if it would bring uncertainty back.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Cognitive rigidity is one feature of autism and its spectrum (ASD), but is even included in what’s called the Broader Autism Phenotype, where a collection of autistic traits still fail to reach the level of ASD. This is one example of how rigidity does not show up as a single trait, but comes with a number of related traits.



M. Rokeach tested for ethnocentrism’s relatedness to mental rigidity by using the California Ethnocentrism Scale (when measuring American college students’ views) and the California Attitude Scale (when measuring children’s views) before they were given what is called by cognitive scientists “the water jar problem.” This problem teaches students a set pattern for how to solve each one. Those that scored higher in ethnocentrism also showed attributes of rigidity such as persistence of mental sets and more complicated thought processes.

Strategies for Overcoming Rigidity

Consequences of Unfulfillment

If a person with cognitive rigidity does not fulfil their rigidly held expectations, the following could occur:

  • Agitation.
  • Aggression.
  • Self-injurious behaviour.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Suicidality.

These are clearly maladaptive, and so there must be other ways to overcome it.

What is Persona (Psychology)?


The persona, for Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, was the social face the individual presented to the world – “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”

Jung’s Persona


According to Jung, the development of a viable social persona is a vital part of adapting to, and preparing for, adult life in the external social world. “A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identifications with a specific persona (doctor, scholar, artist, etc.) inhibits psychological development.” For Jung, “the danger is that [people] become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice.” The result could be “the shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality which is ‘all persona’, with its excessive concern for ‘what people think'” – an unreflecting state of mind “in which people are utterly unconscious of any distinction between themselves and the world in which they live. They have little or no concept of themselves as beings distinct from what society expects of them.” The stage was set thereby for what Jung termed enantiodromia – the emergence of the repressed individuality from beneath the persona later in life: “the individual will either be completely smothered under an empty persona or an enantiodromia into the buried opposites will occur.”


“The breakdown of the persona constitutes the typically Jungian moment both in therapy and in development” – the “moment” when “that excessive commitment to collective ideals masking deeper individuality—the persona—breaks down… disintegrates.” Given Jung’s view that “the persona is a semblance… the dissolution of the persona is therefore absolutely necessary for individuation.” Nevertheless, the persona’s disintegration may lead to a state of chaos in the individual: “one result of the dissolution of the persona is the release of fantasy… disorientation.” As the individuation process gets under way, “the situation has thrown off the conventional husk and developed into a stark encounter with reality, with no false veils or adornments of any kind.”

Negative Restoration

One possible reaction to the resulting experience of archetypal chaos was what Jung called “the regressive restoration of the persona,” whereby the protagonist “laboriously tries to patch up his social reputation within the confines of a much more limited personality… pretending that he is as he was before the crucial experience.” Similarly in treatment there can be “the persona-restoring phase, which is an effort to maintain superficiality;” or even a longer phase designed not to promote individuation but to bring about what Jung caricatured as “the negative restoration of the persona” – that is to say, a reversion to the status quo.


The alternative is to endure living with the absence of the persona – and for Jung “the man with no persona… is blind to the reality of the world, which for him has merely the value of an amusing or fantastic playground.” Inevitably, the result of “the streaming in of the unconscious into the conscious realm, simultaneously with the dissolution of the ‘persona’ and the reduction of the directive force of consciousness, is a state of disturbed psychic equilibrium.” Those trapped at such a stage remain “blind to the world, hopeless dreamers… spectral Cassandras dreaded for their tactlessness, eternally misunderstood.”


Restoration, the aim of individuation, “is not only achieved by work on the inside figures but also, as conditio sine qua non, by a readaptation in outer life” – including the recreation of a new and more viable persona. To “develop a stronger persona… might feel inauthentic, like learning to ‘play a role’… but if one cannot perform a social role then one will suffer.” One goal for individuation is for people to “develop a more realistic, flexible persona that helps them navigate in society but does not collide with nor hide their true self.” Eventually, “in the best case, the persona is appropriate and tasteful, a true reflection of our inner individuality and our outward sense of self.”

Later Developments

The persona has become one of the most widely adopted aspects of Jungian terminology, passing into almost common vocabulary: “a mask or shield which the person places between himself and the people around him, called by some psychiatrists the persona.” For Eric Berne, “the persona is formed during the years from six to twelve, when most children first go out on their own… to avoid unwanted entanglements or promote wanted ones.” He was interested in “the relationship between ego states and the Jungian persona,” and considered that “as an ad hoc attitude, persona is differentiated also from the more autonomous identity of Erik Erikson.” Perhaps more contentiously, in terms of life scripts, he distinguished “the Archetypes (corresponding to the magic figures in a script) and the Persona (which is the style the script is played in).”

Post-Jungians would loosely call the persona “the social archetype of the conformity archetype,” though Jung always distinguished the persona as an external function from those images of the unconscious he called archetypes. Thus, whereas Jung recommended conversing with archetypes as a therapeutic technique he himself had employed – “For decades I always turned to the anima when I felt my emotional behavior was disturbed, and I would speak with the anima about the images she communicated to me” – he stressed that “It would indeed be the height of absurdity if a man tried to have a conversation with his persona, which he recognized merely as a psychological means of relationship.”

Jordan Peterson

University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, a well-known as an admirer of Jung’s work, uses Jungian terminology but reconfigures it into a model that divides the psychological world into the domains of nature and culture. The Great Father of culture is an archetypal force that shapes the potential of chaos into the actuality of order. In this framework, the persona would be the aspect of the personality that has been adapted to culture, more specifically to the social dominance hierarchy, which Peterson refers to as the competency hierarchy. People who refuse to submit to this social discipline or carry the responsibility inherent in having a role in the world remain as undifferentiated potential, known in more Jungian terms as Peter Pan syndrome, or the negative aspect of the puer aeternus.

Though Jung does not reference dominance hierarchies specifically, the above is broadly in accordance with his conception of the persona as defined in his Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:

“We can see how a neglected persona works, and what one must do to remedy the evil. Such people can avoid disappointments and an infinity of sufferings, scenes, and social catastrophes only by learning to see how men behave in the world. They must learn to understand what society expects of them; they must realize that there are factors and persons in the world far above them; they must know that what they do has a meaning for others.”

What is Emotional Detachment?


In psychology, emotional detachment, also known as emotional blunting, has two meanings:

  • One is the inability to connect to others on an emotional level; and
  • The other is as a positive means of coping with anxiety.

This coping strategy, also known as emotion focused-coping, is used by avoiding certain situations that might trigger anxiety. It refers to the evasion of emotional connections. Emotional detachment may be a temporary reaction to a stressful situation, or a chronic condition such as depersonalisation-derealisation disorder. It may also be caused by certain antidepressants. Emotional blunting as reduced affect display is one of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

Signs and Symptoms

Emotional detachment may not be as outwardly obvious as other psychiatric symptoms. Patients diagnosed with emotional detachment have reduced ability to express emotion, to empathise with others or to form powerful emotional connections. Patients are also at an increased risk for many anxiety and stress disorders. This can lead to difficulties in creating and maintaining personal relationships. The person may move elsewhere in their mind and appear preoccupied or “not entirely present”, or they may seem fully present but exhibit purely intellectual behaviour when emotional behaviour would be appropriate. They may have a hard time being a loving family member, or they may avoid activities, places, and people associated with past traumas. Their dissociation can lead to lack of attention and, hence, to memory problems and in extreme cases, amnesia. In some cases, they present an extreme difficulty in giving or receiving empathy which can be related to the spectrum of narcissistic personality disorder.

In children (ages 4-12 were studied), traits of aggression and antisocial behaviours were found to be correlated with emotional detachment. Researchers determined that these could be early signs of emotional detachment, suggesting parents and clinicians to evaluate children with these traits for a higher behavioural problem in order to avoid bigger problems (such as emotional detachment) in the future.


Emotional detachment and/or emotional blunting have multiple causes, as the cause can vary from person to person. Emotional detachment or emotional blunting often arises due to adverse childhood experiences, or to psychological trauma in adulthood.

Emotional blunting is often caused by antidepressants in particular selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used in major depressive disorder, and often as an add-on treatment in other psychiatric disorders.

Behavioural Mechanism

Emotional detachment is a behaviour which allows a person to react calmly to highly emotional circumstances. Emotional detachment in this sense is a decision to avoid engaging emotional connections, rather than an inability or difficulty in doing so, typically for personal, social, or other reasons. In this sense it can allow people to maintain boundaries, psychic integrity and avoid undesired impact by or upon others, related to emotional demands. As such it is a deliberate mental attitude which avoids engaging the emotions of others.

This detachment does not necessarily mean avoiding empathy; rather, it allows the person to rationally choose whether or not to be overwhelmed or manipulated by such feelings. Examples where this is used in a positive sense might include emotional boundary management, where a person avoids emotional levels of engagement related to people who are in some way emotionally overly demanding, such as difficult co-workers or relatives, or is adopted to aid the person in helping others.

Emotional detachment can also be “emotional numbing”, “emotional blunting”, i.e., dissociation, depersonalisation or in its chronic form depersonalisation disorder. This type of emotional numbing or blunting is a disconnection from emotion, it is frequently used as a coping survival skill during traumatic childhood events such as abuse or severe neglect. Over time and with much use, this can become second nature when dealing with day to day stressors.

Emotional detachment may allow acts of extreme cruelty and abuse, supported by the decision to not connect empathically with the person concerned. Social ostracism, such as shunning and parental alienation, are other examples where decisions to shut out a person creates a psychological trauma for the shunned party.

What is Imitation?


Imitation (from Latin imitatio, “a copying, imitation”) is a behaviour whereby an individual observes and replicates another’s behaviour.

Imitation is also a form of social learning that leads to the “development of traditions, and ultimately our culture. It allows for the transfer of information (behaviours, customs, etc.) between individuals and down generations without the need for genetic inheritance.” The word imitation can be applied in many contexts, ranging from animal training to politics. The term generally refers to conscious behaviour; subconscious imitation is termed mirroring.

A toddler imitates his father.

Anthropology and Social Sciences

In anthropology, some theories hold that all cultures imitate ideas from one of a few original cultures or several cultures whose influence overlaps geographically. Evolutionary diffusion theory holds that cultures influence one another, but that similar ideas can be developed in isolation.

Scholars, as well as popular authors, have argued that the role of imitation in humans is unique among animals. However, this claim has been recently challenged by scientific research which observed social learning and imitative abilities in animals.

Psychologist Kenneth Kaye showed that infants’ ability to match the sounds or gestures of an adult depends on an interactive process of turn-taking over many successive trials, in which adults’ instinctive behaviour plays as great a role as that of the infant. These writers assume that evolution would have selected imitative abilities as fit because those who were good at it had a wider arsenal of learned behaviour at their disposal, including tool-making and language.

However, research also suggests that imitative behaviours and other social learning processes are only selected for when outnumbered or accompanied by asocial learning processes: an over-saturation of imitation and imitating individuals leads humans to collectively copy inefficient strategies and evolutionarily maladaptive behaviours, thereby reduce flexibility to new environmental contexts that require adaptation. Research suggests imitative social learning hinders the acquisition of knowledge in novel environments and in situations where asocial learning is faster and more advantageous.

In the mid-20th century, social scientists began to study how and why people imitate ideas. Everett Rogers pioneered innovation diffusion studies, identifying factors in adoption and profiles of adopters of ideas. Imitation mechanisms play a central role in both analytical and empirical models of collective human behaviour.


We are capable of imitating movements, actions, skills, behaviours, gestures, pantomimes, mimics, vocalizations, sounds, speech, etc. and that we have particular “imitation systems” in the brain is old neurological knowledge dating back to Hugo Karl Liepmann. Liepmann’s model 1908 “Das hierarchische Modell der Handlungsplanung” (the hierarchical model of action planning) is still valid. On studying the cerebral localisation of function, Liepmann postulated that planned or commanded actions were prepared in the parietal lobe of the brain’s dominant hemisphere, and also frontally. His most important pioneering work is when extensively studying patients with lesions in these brain areas, he discovered that the patients lost (among other things) the ability to imitate. He was the one who coined the term “apraxia” and differentiated between ideational and ideomotor apraxia. It is in this basic and wider frame of classical neurological knowledge that the discovery of the mirror neuron has to be seen. Though mirror neurons were first discovered in macaques, their discovery also relates to humans.

Human brain studies using FMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) revealed a network of regions in the inferior frontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex which are typically activated during imitation tasks. It has been suggested that these regions contain mirror neurons similar to the mirror neurons recorded in the macaque monkey. However, it is not clear if macaques spontaneously imitate each other in the wild.

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran argues that the evolution of mirror neurons were important in the human acquisition of complex skills such as language and believes the discovery of mirror neurons to be a most important advance in neuroscience. However, little evidence directly supports the theory that mirror neuron activity is involved in cognitive functions such as empathy or learning by imitation.

Evidence is accumulating that bottlenose dolphins employ imitation to learn hunting and other skills from other dolphins.

Japanese monkeys have been seen to spontaneously begin washing potatoes after seeing humans washing them.

Mirror Neuron System

Research has been conducted to locate where in the brain specific parts and neurological systems are activated when humans imitate behaviours and actions of others, discovering a mirror neuron system. This neuron system allows a person to observe and then recreate the actions of others. Mirror neurons are premotor and parietal cells in the macaque brain that fire when the animal performs a goal directed action and when it sees others performing the same action.” Evidence suggests that the mirror neuron system also allows people to comprehend and understand the intentions and emotions of others. Problems of the mirror neuron system may be correlated with the social inadequacies of autism. There have been many studies done showing that children with autism, compared with typically developing children, demonstrate reduced activity in the frontal mirror neuron system area when observing or imitating facial emotional expressions. Of course, the higher the severity of the disease, the lower the activity in the mirror neuron system is.

Animal Behaviour

Scientists debate whether animals can consciously imitate the unconscious incitement from sentinel animals, whether imitation is uniquely human, or whether humans do a complex version of what other animals do. The current controversy is partly definitional. Thorndike uses “learning to do an act from seeing it done.” It has two major shortcomings: first, by using “seeing” it restricts imitation to the visual domain and excludes, e.g. vocal imitation and, second, it would also include mechanisms such as priming, contagious behaviour and social facilitation, which most scientist distinguish as separate forms of observational learning. Thorpe suggested defining imitation as “the copying of a novel or otherwise improbable act or utterance, or some act for which there is clearly no instinctive tendency.” This definition is favoured by many scholars, though questions have been raised how strictly the term “novel” has to be interpreted and how exactly a performed act has to match the demonstration to count as a copy.

In 1952 Hayes & Hayes used the “do-as-I-do” procedure to demonstrate the imitative abilities of their trained chimpanzee “Viki.” Their study was repeatedly criticised for its subjective interpretations of their subjects’ responses. Replications of this study found much lower matching degrees between subjects and models. However, imitation research focusing on the copying fidelity got new momentum from a study by Voelkl and Huber. They analysed the motion trajectories of both model and observer monkeys and found a high matching degree in their movement patterns.

Paralleling these studies, comparative psychologists provided tools or apparatuses that could be handled in different ways. Heyes and co-workers reported evidence for imitation in rats that pushed a lever in the same direction as their models, though later on they withdrew their claims due to methodological problems in their original setup. By trying to design a testing paradigm that is less arbitrary than pushing a lever to the left or to the right, Custance and co-workers introduced the “artificial fruit” paradigm, where a small object could be opened in different ways to retrieve food placed inside – not unlike a hard-shelled fruit. Using this paradigm, scientists reported evidence for imitation in monkeys and apes. There remains a problem with such tool (or apparatus) use studies: what animals might learn in such studies need not be the actual behaviour patterns (i.e. the actions) that were observed. Instead they might learn about some effects in the environment (i.e. how the tool moves, or how the apparatus works). This type of observational learning, which focuses on results, not actions, has been dubbed emulation (refer to Emulation (observational learning)).

An article was written by Carl Zimmer, he looked into a study being done by Derek lyons, he was focusing on human evolution, so he started to study a chimpanzee. He first started with showing the chimp how to retrieve food from a box, So they had the scientist go in a demonstrate how to retrieve the food from the box. The chimp soon caught on and did exactly what the scientist just did. They wanted to see if the chimpanzees brain functioned just like humans brain so they related this same exact study to 16 children and they did the same procedure and once the children seen how it was done, they followed the same steps.

Imitation in Animals

Imitation in animals is a study in the field of social learning where learning behaviour is observed in animals specifically how animals learn and adapt through imitation. Ethologists can classify imitation in animals by the learning of certain behaviours from conspecifics. More specifically, these behaviours are usually unique to the species and can be complex in nature and can benefit the individuals survival.

Some scientists believe true imitation is only produced by humans, arguing that simple learning though sight is not enough to sustain as a being who can truly imitate. Thorpe defines true imitation as “the copying of a novel or otherwise improbable act or utterance, or some act for which there is clearly no instinctive tendency,” which is highly debated for its portrayal of imitation as a mindless repeating act. True imitation is produced when behavioural, visual and vocal imitation is achieved, not just the simple reproduction of exclusive behaviours. Imitation is not a simple reproduction of what one sees; rather it incorporates intention and purpose. Animal imitation can range from survival purpose; imitating as a function of surviving or adapting, to unknown possible curiosity, which vary between different animals and produce different results depending on the measured intelligence of the animal.

There is considerable evidence to support true imitation in animals. Experiments performed on apes, birds and more specifically the Japanese quail have provided positive results to imitating behaviour, demonstrating imitation of opaque behaviour. However the problem that lies is in the discrepancies between what is considered true imitation in behaviour. Birds have demonstrated visual imitation, where the animal simply does as it sees. Studies on apes however have proven more advanced results in imitation, being able to remember and learn from what they imitate. Studies have demonstrated far more positive results with behavioural imitation in primates and birds than any other type of animal. Imitation in non primate mammals and other animals have been proven difficult to conclude solid positive results for and poses a difficult question to scientists on why that is so.


There are two types of theories of imitation, transformational and associative. Transformational theories suggest that the information that is required to display certain behaviour is created internally through cognitive processes and observing these behaviours provides incentive to duplicate them. Meaning we already have the codes to recreate any behaviour and observing it results in its replication. Bandura’s “social cognitive theory” is one example of a transformational theory. Associative, or sometimes referred to as “contiguity”, theories suggest that the information required to display certain behaviours does not come from within ourselves but solely from our surroundings and experiences. Unfortunately these theories have not yet provided testable predictions in the field of social learning in animals and have yet to conclude strong results.

New Developments

There have been three major developments in the field of animal imitation. The first, behavioural ecologists and experimental psychologists found there to be adaptive patterns in behaviours in different vertebrate species in biologically important situations. The second, primatologists and comparative psychologists have found imperative evidence that suggest true learning through imitation in animals. The third, population biologists and behavioural ecologists created experiments that demand animals to depend on social learning in certain manipulated environments.

Child Development

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that children in a developmental phase he called the sensorimotor stage (a period which lasts up to the first two years of a child) begin to imitate observed actions. This is an important stage in the development of a child because the child is beginning to think symbolically, associating behaviours with actions, thus setting the child up for the development of further symbolic thinking. Imitative learning also plays a crucial role in the development of cognitive and social communication behaviours, such as language, play, and joint attention. Imitation serves as both a learning and a social function because new skills and knowledge are acquired, and communication skills are improved by interacting in social and emotional exchanges. It is shown, however, that “children with autism exhibit significant deficits in imitation that are associated with impairments in other social communication skills.” To help children with autism, reciprocal imitation training (RIT) is used. It is a naturalistic imitation intervention that helps teach the social benefits of imitation during play by increasing child responsiveness and by increasing imitative language.

Reinforcement learning, both positive and negative, and punishment, are used by people that children imitate to either promote or discontinue behaviour. If a child imitates a certain type of behaviour or action and the consequences are rewarding, the child is very likely to continue performing the same behaviour or action. The behaviour “has been reinforced (i.e. strengthened)”. However, if the imitation is not accepted and approved by others, then the behaviour will be weakened.

Naturally, children are surrounded by many different types of people that influence their actions and behaviours, including parents, family members, teachers, peers, and even characters on television programs. These different types of individuals that are observed are called models. According to Saul McLeod, “these models provide examples of masculine and feminine behaviour to observe and imitate.” Children imitate the behaviour they have observed from others, regardless of the gender of the person and whether or not the behaviour is gender appropriate. However, it has been proven that children will reproduce the behaviour that “its society deems appropriate for its sex.”


Infants have the ability to reveal an understanding of certain outcomes before they occur, therefore in this sense they can somewhat imitate what they have perceived. Andrew N. Meltzoff, ran a series of tasks involving 14-month-old infants to imitate actions they perceived from adults. In this gathering he had concluded that the infants, before trying to reproduce the actions they wish to imitate, some how revealed an understanding of the intended goal even though they failed to replicate the result wished to be imitated. These task implicated that the infants knew the goal intended. Gergely, Bekkering, and Király (2002) figured that infants not only understand the intended goal but also the intentions of the person they were trying to imitate engaging in “rational imitation”, as described by Tomasello, Carpenter and others.

It has long been claimed that newborn humans imitate bodily gestures and facial expressions as soon as their first few days of life. For example, in a study conducted at the Mailman Centre for Child Development at the University of Miami Medical School, 74 newborn babies (with a mean age of 36 hours) were tested to see if they were able to imitate a smile, a frown and a pout, and a wide-open mouth and eyes. An observer stood behind the experimenter (so he/she couldn’t see what facial expressions were being made by the experimenter) and watched only the babies’ facial expressions, recording their results. Just by looking only at the babies’ faces, the observer was more often able to correctly guess what facial expression was being presented to the child by the experimenter. After the results were calculated, “the researchers concluded that…babies have an innate ability to compare an expression they see with their own sense of muscular feedback from making the movements to match that expression.”

However, the idea that imitation is an inborn ability has been recently challenged. A research group from the University of Queensland in Australia carried out the largest-ever longitudinal study of neonatal imitation in humans. One hundred and nine newborns were shown a variety of gestures including tongue protrusion, mouth opening, happy and sad facial expressions, at four time points between one week and 9 weeks of age. The results failed to reveal compelling evidence that newborns imitate: Infants were just as likely to produce matching and non-matching gestures in response to what they saw.

At around eight months, infants will start to copy their child care providers’ movements when playing pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo, as well as imitating familiar gestures, such as clapping hands together or patting a doll’s back. At around 18 months, infants will then begin to imitate simple actions they observe adults doing, such as taking a toy phone out of a purse and saying “hello”, pretending to sweep with a child-sized broom, as well as imitating using a toy hammer.


At around 30-36 months, toddlers will start to imitate their parents by pretending to get ready for work and school and saying the last word(s) of what an adult just said. For example, toddlers may say “bowl” or “a bowl” after they hear someone say, “That’s a bowl.” They may also imitate the way family members communicate by using the same gestures and words. For example, a toddler will say, “Mommy bye-bye” after the father says, “Mommy went bye-bye.”

Toddlers love to imitate their parents and help when they can; imitation helps toddlers learn, and through their experiences lasting impressions are made. 12 to 36-month-olds learn by doing, not by watching, and so it is often recommended to be a good role model and caretaker by showing them simple tasks like putting on socks or holding a spoon.

Duke developmental psychologist Carol Eckerman did a study on toddlers imitating toddlers and found that at the age of 2 children involve themselves in imitation play to communicate with one another. This can be seen within a culture or across different cultures. 3 common imitative patterns Eckerman found were reciprocal imitation, follow-the-leader and lead-follow.

Kenneth Kaye’s “apprenticeship” theory of imitation rejected assumptions that other authors had made about its development. His research showed that there is no one simple imitation skill with its own course of development. What changes is the type of behaviour imitated.

An important agenda for infancy is the progressive imitation of higher levels of use of signs, until the ultimate achievement of symbols. The principal role played by parents in this process is their provision of salient models within the facilitating frames that channel the infant’s attention and organise his imitative efforts.

Gender and Age Differences

Imitation and imitative behaviours do not manifest ubiquitously and evenly in all human individuals, some individuals rely more on imitated information than others. Although imitation is very useful when it comes to cognitive learning with toddlers, research has shown that there are some gender and age differences when it comes to imitation. Research done to judge imitation in toddlers 2-3 years old shows that when faced with certain conditions “2-year-olds displayed more motor imitation than 3-year-olds, and 3-year-olds displayed more verbal-reality imitation than 2-year-olds. Boys displayed more motor imitation than girls.”

No other research is more controversial pertaining gender differences in toddler imitation than renowned psychologist, Bandura’s, bobo doll experiments. The goal of the experiment was to see what happens to toddlers when exposed to aggressive and non aggressive adults, would the toddlers imitate the behaviour of the adults and if so, which gender is more likely to imitate the aggressive adult. In the beginning of the experiment Bandura had several predictions that actually came true. Children exposed to violent adults will imitate the actions of that adult when the adult is not present, boys who had observed an adult of the opposite sex act aggressively are less likely to act violently than those who witnessed a male adult act violently. In fact ‘boys who observed an adult male behaving violently were more influenced than those who had observed a female model behaviour aggressively’. One fascinating observation was that while boys are likely to imitate physical acts of violence, girls are likely to imitate verbal acts of violence.

Negative Imitation

Imitation plays such a major role on how a toddler interprets the world. So much of a child’s understanding is derived from imitation, due to lack of verbal skill imitation is a toddlers way of communication with the world. It is what connects them to the communicating world, as they continue to grow they begin to learn more and more. That is why it is crucial for parents to be cautious as to how they act and behave around their toddlers. Imitation is the toddlers way of confirming and dis-conforming socially acceptable actions in our society. Actions like washing dishes, cleaning up the house and doing chores are actions you want your toddlers to imitate. Imitating negative things is something that is never beyond young toddlers. If they are exposed to cursing and violence, it is going to be what the child views as the norm of his or her world, remember imitation is the ‘mental activity that helps to formulate the conceptions of the world for toddlers’ Hay et al. (1991), when a toddler sees something so often he or she will form his or her reality around that action. So it is important for parents to be careful what they say or do in front of their children.


Children with autism exhibit significant impairment in imitation skills. Imitation deficits have been reported on a variety of tasks including symbolic and non-symbolic body movements, symbolic and functional object use, vocalisations, and facial expressions. In contrast, typically-developing children can copy a broad range of novel (as well as familiar) rules from a very early age. Problems with imitation discriminate children with autism from those with other developmental disorders as early as age 2 and continue into adulthood.

However, recent research suggests that people affected with forms of High Functioning Autism easily interact with one another by using a more analytically-centred communication approach rather than an imitative cue-based approach, suggesting that reduced imitative capabilities don’t affect abilities for expressive social behaviour but only the understanding of said social behaviour: Social communication is not negatively affected when said communication involves less or no imitation. Children with Autism may have significant problems understanding typical social communication not because of inherent social deficits, but because of differences in communication style which affect reciprocal understanding.

Individuals with Autism are also shown to possess increased analytical, cognitive and visual processing, suggesting people with autism have no true impairments in observing the actions of others but may decide not to imitate them because they do not analytically understand them.

Imitation plays a crucial role in the development of cognitive and social communication behaviours, such as language, play, and joint attention. Children with autism exhibit significant deficits in imitation that are associated with impairments in other social communication skills. It is unclear whether imitation is mediating these relationships directly, or whether they are due to some other developmental variable that is also reflected in the measurement of imitation skills.

Automatic Imitation

The automatic imitation comes very fast when a stimulus is given to replicate. The imitation can match the commands with the visual stimulus (compatible) or it cannot match the commands with the visual stimulus (incompatible). For example: ‘Simon Says’, a game played with children where they are told to follow the commands given by the adult. In this game, the adult gives the commands and shows the actions; the commands given can either match the action to be done or it will not match the action. The children who imitate the adult who has given the command with the correct action will stay in the game. The children who imitate the command with the wrong action will go out of the game, and this is where the child’s automatic imitation comes into play. Psychologically, the visual stimulus being looked upon by the child is being imitated faster than the imitation of the command. In addition, the response times were faster in compatible scenarios than in incompatible scenarios.

Children are surrounded by many different people, day by day. Their parents make a big impact on them, and usually what the children do is what they have seen their parent do. In this article they found that a child, simply watching its mother sweep the floor, right after soon picks up on it and starts to imitate the mother by sweeping the floor. By the children imitating, they are really teaching themselves how to do things without instruction from the parent or guardian. Toddlers love to play the game of house. They picked up on this game of house by television, school or at home; they play the game how they see it. The kids imitate their parents or anybody in their family. In the article it says it is so easy for them to pick up on the things they see on an everyday basis.


Over-imitation is “the tendency of young children to copy all of an adult model’s actions, even components that are irrelevant for the task at hand.” According to this human and cross-cultural phenomenon, a child has a strong tendency to automatically encode the deliberate action of an adult as causally meaningful even when the child observes evidence that proves that its performance is unnecessary. It is suggested that over-imitation “may be critical to the transmission of human culture.”

However, another study suggests that children don’t just “blindly follow the crowd” since they can also be just as discriminating as adults in choosing whether an unnecessary action should be copied or not. They may imitate additional but unnecessary steps to a novel process if the adult demonstrations are all the same. However, in cases where one out of four adults showed a better technique, only 40% actually copied the extra step, as described by Evans, Carpenter and others.

Deferred Imitation

Piaget coined the term deferred imitation and suggested that it arises out of the child’s increasing ability to “form mental representations of behaviour performed by others.” Deferred imitation is also “the ability to reproduce a previously witnessed action or sequence of actions in the absence of current perceptual support for the action.” Instead of copying what is currently occurring, individuals repeat the action or behaviour later on. It appears that infants show an improving ability for deferred imitation as they get older, especially by 24 months. By 24 months, infants are able to imitate action sequences after a delay of up to three months, meaning that “they’re able to generalise knowledge they have gained from one test environment to another and from one test object to another.”

A child’s deferred imitation ability “to form mental representations of actions occurring in everyday life and their knowledge of communicative gestures” has also been linked to earlier productive language development. Between 9 (preverbal period) and 16 months (verbal period), deferred imitation performance on a standard actions-on-objects task was consistent in one longitudinal study testing participants’ ability to complete a target action, with high achievers at 9 months remaining so at 16 months. Gestural development at 9 months was also linked to productive language at 16 months. Researchers now believe that early deferred imitation ability is indicative of early declarative memory, also considered a predictor of productive language development.

What is Self Psychology?


Self psychology, a modern psychoanalytic theory and its clinical applications, was conceived by Heinz Kohut in Chicago in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and is still developing as a contemporary form of psychoanalytic treatment.

In self psychology, the effort is made to understand individuals from within their subjective experience via vicarious introspection, basing interpretations on the understanding of the self as the central agency of the human psyche. Essential to understanding self psychology are the concepts of empathy, selfobject, mirroring, idealising, alter ego/twinship and the tripolar self. Though self psychology also recognises certain drives, conflicts, and complexes present in Freudian psychodynamic theory, these are understood within a different framework. Self psychology was seen as a major break from traditional psychoanalysis and is considered the beginnings of the relational approach to psychoanalysis.


Kohut came to psychoanalysis by way of neurology and psychiatry in the 1940s, but then ’embraced analysis with the fervor of a convert … [and as] “Mr Psychoanalysis”‘ took on an idealising image of Freud and his theories. Subsequently, “in a burst of creativity that began in the mid-1960s … Kohut found his voice and explored narcissism in new ways that led to what he ended up calling a ‘psychology of the self'”.

Major Concepts


Kohut explained, in 1977, that in all he wrote on the psychology of the self, he purposely did not define the self. He explained his reasoning this way: “The self…is, like all reality…not knowable in its essence…We can describe the various cohesive forms in which the self appears, can demonstrate the several constituents that make up the self … and explain their genesis and functions. We can do all that but we will still not know the essence of the self as differentiated from its manifestations.”


Kohut maintained that parents’ failures to empathize with their children and the responses of their children to these failures were ‘at the root of almost all psychopathology’. For Kohut, the loss of the other and the other’s self-object (“selfobject”) function (see below) leaves the individual apathetic, lethargic, empty of the feeling of life, and without vitality – in short, depressed.

The infant moving from grandiose to cohesive self and beyond must go through the slow process of disillusionment with phantasies of omnipotence, mediated by the parents: ‘This process of gradual and titrated disenchantment requires that the infant’s caretakers be empathetically attuned to the infant’s needs’.

Correspondingly, to help a patient deal in therapy with earlier failures in the disenchantment process, Kohut the therapist ‘highlights empathy as the tool par excellence, which allows the creation of a relationship between patient and analyst that can offer some hope of mitigating early self pathology’.

In comparison to earlier psychoanalytic approaches, the use of empathy, which Kohut called “vicarious introspection”, allows the therapist to reach conclusions sooner (with less dialogue and interpretation), and to create a stronger bond with the patient, making the patient feel more fundamentally understood. For Kohut, the implicit bond of empathy itself has a curative effect, but he also warned that ‘the psychoanalyst … must also be able to relinquish the empathic attitude’ to maintain intellectual integrity, and that ’empathy, especially when it is surrounded by an attitude of wanting to cure directly … may rest on the therapist’s unresolved omnipotence fantasies’.

The conceptual introduction of empathy was not intended to be a “discovery.” Empathic moments in psychology existed long before Kohut. Instead, Kohut posited that empathy in psychology should be acknowledged as a powerful therapeutic tool, extending beyond “hunches” and vague “assumptions,” and enabling empathy to be described, taught, and used more actively.


Selfobjects are external objects that function as part of the “self machinery” – ‘i.e. objects which are not experienced as separate and independent from the self’. They are persons, objects or activities that “complete” the self, and which are necessary for normal functioning. ‘Kohut describes early interactions between the infant and his caretakers as involving the infant’s “self” and the infant’s “selfobjects”‘.

Observing the patient’s selfobject connections is a fundamental part of self psychology. For instance, a person’s particular habits, choice of education and work, taste in life partners, may fill a selfobject-function for that particular individual.

Selfobjects are addressed throughout Kohut’s theory, and include everything from the transference phenomenon in therapy, relatives, and items (for instance Linus van Pelt’s security blanket): they ‘thus cover the phenomena which were described by Winnicott as transitional objects. Among “the great variety of selfobject relations that support the cohesion, vigor, and harmony of the adult self … [are] cultural selfobjects (the writers, artists, and political leaders of the group – the nation, for example – to which a person feels he belongs)”.

If psychopathology is explained as an “incomplete” or “defect” self, then the self-objects might be described as a self-prescribed “cure”.

As described by Kohut, the selfobject-function (i.e. what the selfobject does for the self) is taken for granted and seems to take place in a “blindzone”. The function thus usually does not become “visible” until the relation with the selfobject is somehow broken.

When a relationship is established with a new selfobject, the relationship connection can “lock in place” quite powerfully, and the pull of the connection may affect both self and selfobject. Powerful transference, for instance, is an example of this phenomenon.

Optimal Frustration

When a selfobject is needed, but not accessible, this will create a potential problem for the self, referred to as a “frustration” – as with ‘the traumatic frustration of the phase appropriate wish or need for parental acceptance … intense narcissistic frustration’.

The contrast is what Kohut called “optimal frustration”; and he considered that, ‘as holds true for the analogous later milieu of the child, the most important aspect of the earliest mother-infant relationship is the principle of optimal frustration. Tolerable disappointments … lead to the establishment of internal structures which provide the basis for self-soothing.’

In a parallel way, Kohut considered that the ‘skilful analyst will … conduct the analysis according to the principle of optimal frustration’.

Suboptimal frustrations, and maladaptations following them, may be compared to Freud’s trauma concept, or to problem solution in the oedipal phase. However, the scope of optimal (or other) frustration describes shaping every “nook and cranny” of the self, rather than a few dramatic conflicts.


Kohut saw idealising as a central aspect of early narcissism. “The therapeutic activation of the omnipotent object (the idealized parent image) … referred to as the idealizing transference, is the revival during psychoanalysis” of the very early need to establish a mutual selfobject connection with an object of idealisation.

In terms of “the Kleinian school … the idealizing transference may cover some of the territory of so-called projective identification”.

For the young child, “idealized selfobjects “provide the experience of merger with the calm, power, wisdom, and goodness of idealized persons””.

Alter Ego/Twinship Needs

Alter ego/twinship needs refer to the desire in early development to feel alikeness to other human beings. Freud had early noted that ‘The idea of the “double” … sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which holds sway in the mind of the child.’ Lacan highlighted ‘the mirror stage … of a normal transitivism. The child who strikes another says that he has been struck; the child who sees another fall, cries.’ In 1960, ‘Arlow observed, “The existence of another individual who is a reflection of the self brings the experience of twinship in line with the psychology of the double, of the mirror image and of the double”.’

Kohut pointed out that ‘fantasies, referring to a relationship with such an alter ego or twin (or conscious wishes for such a relationship) are frequently encountered in the analysis of narcissistic personalities’, and termed their transference activation ‘the alter-ego transference or the twinship’.

As development continues, so a greater degree of difference from others can be accepted.

The Tripolar Self

The tripolar self is not associated with bipolar disorder, but is the sum of the three “poles” of the body:

  • “grandiose-exhibitionistic needs”.
  • “the need for an omnipotent idealized figure”.
  • “alter-ego needs”..

Kohut argued that ‘reactivation of the grandiose self in analysis occurs in three forms: these relate to specific stages of development … (1) The archaic merger through the extension of the grandiose self; (2) a less archaic form which will be called alter-ego transference or twinship; and (3) a still less archaic form … mirror transference’.

Alternately, self psychologists ‘divide the selfobject transference into three groups: (1) those in which the damaged pole of ambitions attempts to elicit the confirming-approving response of the selfobject (mirror transference); (2) those in which the damaged pole of ideals searches for a selfobject that will accept its idealisation (idealising transference); and those in which the damaged intermediate area of talents and skills seeks … alter ego transference.’

The tripolar self forms as a result of the needs of an individual binding with the interactions of other significant persons within the life of that individual.

Cultural Implications

An interesting application of self psychology has been in the interpretation of the friendship of Freud and Jung, its breakdown, and its aftermath. It has been suggested that at the height of the relationship “Freud was in narcissistic transference, that he saw in Jung an idealised version of himself”, and that conversely in Jung there was a double mix of “idealization of Freud and grandiosity in the self”.

During Jung’s midlife crisis, after his break with Freud, arguably “the focus of the critical years had to be a struggle with narcissism: the loss of an idealized other, grandiosity in the sphere of the self, and resulting periods of narcissistic rage”. Only as he worked through to “a new sense of himself as a person separate from Freud” could Jung emerge as an independent theorist in his own right.

On the assumption that “the western self is embedded in a culture of narcissism … implicated in the shift towards postmodernity”, opportunities for making such applications will probably not decrease in the foreseeable future.


Kohut, who was “the center of a fervid cult in Chicago”, aroused at times almost equally fervent criticism and opposition, emanating from at least three other directions: drive theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and object relations theory.

From the perspective of drive theory, Kohut appears “as an important contributor to analytic technique and as a misguided theoretician … introduces assumptions that simply clutter up basic theory. The more postulates you make, the less their explanatory power becomes.” Offering no technical advances on standard analytic methods in “his breathtakingly unreadable The Analysis of the Self”, Kohut simply seems to blame parental deficit for all childhood difficulties, disregarding the inherent conflicts of the drives: “Where the orthodox Freudian sees sex everywhere, the Kohutian sees unempathic mothers everywhere – even in sex.”

To the Lacanian, Kohut’s exclusive “concern with the imaginary”, to the exclusion of the Symbolic meant that “not only the patient’s narcissism is in question here, but also the analyst’s narcissism.” The danger in “the concept of the sympathetic or empathic analyst who is led astray towards an ideal of devotion and samaritan helping … [ignoring] its sadistic underpinnings” seemed only too clear.

From an object relations perspective, Kohut “allows no place for internal determinants. The predicate is that a person’s psychopathology is due to unattuned selfobjects, so all the bad is out there and we have a theory with a paranoid basis.” At the same time, “any attempt at “being the better parent” has the effect of deflecting, even seducing, a patient from using the analyst or therapist in a negative transference … the empathic analyst, or “better” parent”.

With the passage of time, and the eclipse of grand narrative, it may now be possible to see the several strands of psychoanalytic theory less as fierce rivals and more “as complementary partners. Drive psychology, ego psychology, object relations psychology and self psychology each have important insights to offer twenty-first-century clinicians.”

On This Day … 09 October

People (Births)

  • 1900 – Joseph Zubin, Lithuanian-American psychologist and academic (d. 1990).
  • 1943 – Douglas Kirby, American psychologist and author (d. 2012).

Joseph Zubin

Joseph Zubin (09 October 1900 to 18 December 1990) was a Lithuanian born American educational psychologist and an authority on schizophrenia who is commemorated by the Joseph Zubin Awards.

Zubin was born 09 October 1900 in Raseiniai, Lithuania, but moved to the US in 1908 and grew up in Baltimore. His first degree was in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University in 1921, and he earned a PhD in educational psychology at Columbia University in 1932. In 1934 he married Winifred Anderson (who survived him) and they had three children (2 sons, David and Jonathan, and a daughter, Winfred). At his death on 18 December 1990, he had seven grandchildren. In addition, his great-grandson is Adam Chapnik, counsellor of the Abbey Unit at Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wildwood Camp.

Zubin was President of both the American Psychopathological Association (1951-1952) and the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (1971-1972) and received numerous awards for his work. In 1946 he was elected as a Fellow of the American Statistical Association.

Douglas Kirby

Douglas Bernard Kirby, Ph.D. (09 October 1943 to 22 December 2012) was senior research scientist for ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, California, and one of the world’s leading experts on the effectiveness of school and community programmes in the reduction of adolescent sexual risk-taking behaviours. In recent years he had also undertaken research and analysis on the impact of HIV/AIDS prevention programmes in Uganda under the auspices of the World Health Organization, USAID, and other organisations.

Kirby authored over 100 articles, chapters and monographs on these programmes including the widely acclaimed Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programmes to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases which he produced for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. It is a comprehensive review of 115 programme evaluations to help determine the most effective approaches to preventing teen pregnancy and STDs. It paints a detailed picture of the protective factors associated with adolescent risk taking behaviour and identifies important characteristics of effective sexuality and HIV education programmes. His recent research has shown strong evidence for the effectiveness of comprehensive sex and STD/HIV programs and limited evidence for the effectiveness of sexual abstinence programmes.

What is Educational Psychology?


Educational psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the scientific study of human learning.

The study of learning processes, from both cognitive and behavioural perspectives, allows researchers to understand individual differences in intelligence, cognitive development, affect, motivation, self-regulation, and self-concept, as well as their role in learning. The field of educational psychology relies heavily on quantitative methods, including testing and measurement, to enhance educational activities related to instructional design, classroom management, and assessment, which serve to facilitate learning processes in various educational settings across the lifespan.

Educational psychology can in part be understood through its relationship with other disciplines. It is informed primarily by psychology, bearing a relationship to that discipline analogous to the relationship between medicine and biology. It is also informed by neuroscience. Educational psychology in turn informs a wide range of specialities within educational studies, including instructional design, educational technology, curriculum development, organizational learning, special education, classroom management, and student motivation. Educational psychology both draws from and contributes to cognitive science and the learning sciences. In universities, departments of educational psychology are usually housed within faculties of education, possibly accounting for the lack of representation of educational psychology content in introductory psychology textbooks.

The field of educational psychology involves the study of memory, conceptual processes, and individual differences (via cognitive psychology) in conceptualising new strategies for learning processes in humans. Educational psychology has been built upon theories of operant conditioning, functionalism, structuralism, constructivism, humanistic psychology, Gestalt psychology, and information processing.

Educational psychology has seen rapid growth and development as a profession in the last twenty years. School psychology began with the concept of intelligence testing leading to provisions for special education students, who could not follow the regular classroom curriculum in the early part of the 20th century. However, “school psychology” itself has built a fairly new profession based upon the practices and theories of several psychologists among many different fields. Educational psychologists are working side by side with psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, speech and language therapists, and counsellors in an attempt to understand the questions being raised when combining behavioural, cognitive, and social psychology in the classroom setting.

Brief History

Early Years

Educational psychology is a fairly new and growing field of study. Although it can date back as early as the days of Plato and Aristotle, educational psychology was not considered a specific practice. It was unknown that everyday teaching and learning in which individuals had to think about individual differences, assessment, development, the nature of a subject being taught, problem-solving, and transfer of learning was the beginning to the field of educational psychology. These topics are important to education and, as a result, they are important in understanding human cognition, learning, and social perception.

Plato and Aristotle

Educational psychology dates back to the time of Aristotle and Plato. Plato and Aristotle researched individual differences in the field of education, training of the body and the cultivation of psycho-motor skills, the formation of good character, the possibilities and limits of moral education. Some other educational topics they spoke about were the effects of music, poetry, and the other arts on the development of individual, role of teacher, and the relations between teacher and student. Plato saw knowledge acquisition as an innate ability, which evolves through experience and understanding of the world. This conception of human cognition has evolved into a continuing argument of nature vs. nurture in understanding conditioning and learning today. Aristotle observed the phenomenon of “association.” His four laws of association included succession, contiguity, similarity, and contrast. His studies examined recall and facilitated learning processes.

John Locke

John Locke is considered one of the most influential philosophers in post-renaissance Europe, a time period that began around the mid-1600s. Locke is considered the “Father of English Psychology”. One of Locke’s most important works was written in 1690, named An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In this essay, he introduced the term “tabula rasa” meaning “blank slate.” Locke explained that learning was attained through experience only and that we are all born without knowledge.

He followed by contrasting Plato’s theory of innate learning processes. Locke believed the mind was formed by experiences, not innate ideas. Locke introduced this idea as “empiricism,” or the understanding that knowledge is only built on knowledge and experience.

In the late 1600s, John Locke advanced the hypothesis that people learn primarily from external forces. He believed that the mind was like a blank tablet (tabula rasa), and that successions of simple impressions give rise to complex ideas through association and reflection. Locke is credited with establishing “empiricism” as a criterion for testing the validity of knowledge, thus providing a conceptual framework for later development of experimental methodology in the natural and social sciences.

Before 1890

Philosophers of education such as Juan Vives, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Fröbel, and Johann Herbart had examined, classified and judged the methods of education centuries before the beginnings of psychology in the late 1800s.

Juan Vives

Juan Vives (1493-1540) proposed induction as the method of study and believed in the direct observation and investigation of the study of nature. His studies focused on humanistic learning, which opposed scholasticism and was influenced by a variety of sources including philosophy, psychology, politics, religion, and history. He was one of the first prominent thinkers to emphasize that the location of a school is important to learning. He suggested that a school should be located away from disturbing noises; the air quality should be good and there should be plenty of food for the students and teachers. Vives emphasized the importance of understanding individual differences of the students and suggested practice as an important tool for learning.

Vives introduced his educational ideas in his writing, “De anima et vita” in 1538. In this publication, Vives explores moral philosophy as a setting for his educational ideals; with this, he explains that the different parts of the soul (similar to that of Aristotle’s ideas) are each responsible for different operations, which function distinctively. The first book covers the different “souls”: “The Vegetative Soul;” this is the soul of nutrition, growth, and reproduction, “The Sensitive Soul,” which involves the five external senses; “The Cogitative soul,” which includes internal senses and cognitive facilities. The second book involves functions of the rational soul: mind, will, and memory. Lastly, the third book explains the analysis of emotions.

Johann Pestalozzi

Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a Swiss educational reformer, emphasized the child rather than the content of the school. Pestalozzi fostered an educational reform backed by the idea that early education was crucial for children, and could be manageable for mothers. Eventually, this experience with early education would lead to a “wholesome person characterised by morality.” Pestalozzi has been acknowledged for opening institutions for education, writing books for mother’s teaching home education, and elementary books for students, mostly focusing on the kindergarten level. In his later years, he published teaching manuals and methods of teaching.

During the time of The Enlightenment, Pestalozzi’s ideals introduced “educationalisation”. This created the bridge between social issues and education by introducing the idea of social issues to be solved through education. Horlacher describes the most prominent example of this during The Enlightenment to be “improving agricultural production methods.”

Johann Herbart

Johann Herbart (1776-1841) is considered the father of educational psychology. He believed that learning was influenced by interest in the subject and the teacher. He thought that teachers should consider the students’ existing mental sets – what they already know – when presenting new information or material. Herbart came up with what are now known as the formal steps. The 5 steps that teachers should use are:

  1. Review material that has already been learned by the student.
  2. Prepare the student for new material by giving them an overview of what they are learning next.
  3. Present the new material.
  4. Relate the new material to the old material that has already been learned.
  5. Show how the student can apply the new material and show the material they will learn next.


There were three major figures in educational psychology in this period: William James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey. These three men distinguished themselves in general psychology and educational psychology, which overlapped significantly at the end of the 19th century.

William James (1842-1910)

The period of 1890-1920 is considered the golden era of educational psychology where aspirations of the new discipline rested on the application of the scientific methods of observation and experimentation to educational problems. From 1840 to 1920 37 million people immigrated to the United States. This created an expansion of elementary schools and secondary schools. The increase in immigration also provided educational psychologists the opportunity to use intelligence testing to screen immigrants at Ellis Island. Darwinism influenced the beliefs of the prominent educational psychologists. Even in the earliest years of the discipline, educational psychologists recognized the limitations of this new approach. The pioneering American psychologist William James commented that:

Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediate inventive mind must make that application, by using its originality”.

James is the father of psychology in America but he also made contributions to educational psychology. In his famous series of lectures Talks to Teachers on Psychology, published in 1899, James defines education as “the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior”. He states that teachers should “train the pupil to behavior” so that he fits into the social and physical world. Teachers should also realise the importance of habit and instinct. They should present information that is clear and interesting and relate this new information and material to things the student already knows about. He also addresses important issues such as attention, memory, and association of ideas.

Alfred Binet

Alfred Binet published Mental Fatigue in 1898, in which he attempted to apply the experimental method to educational psychology. In this experimental method he advocated for two types of experiments, experiments done in the lab and experiments done in the classroom. In 1904 he was appointed the Minister of Public Education. This is when he began to look for a way to distinguish children with developmental disabilities. Binet strongly supported special education programs because he believed that “abnormality” could be cured. The Binet-Simon test was the first intelligence test and was the first to distinguish between “normal children” and those with developmental disabilities. Binet believed that it was important to study individual differences between age groups and children of the same age. He also believed that it was important for teachers to take into account individual students’ strengths and also the needs of the classroom as a whole when teaching and creating a good learning environment. He also believed that it was important to train teachers in observation so that they would be able to see individual differences among children and adjust the curriculum to the students. Binet also emphasized that practice of material was important. In 1916 Lewis Terman revised the Binet-Simon so that the average score was always 100. The test became known as the Stanford-Binet and was one of the most widely used tests of intelligence. Terman, unlike Binet, was interested in using intelligence test to identify gifted children who had high intelligence. In his longitudinal study of gifted children, who became known as the Termites, Terman found that gifted children become gifted adults.

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) supported the scientific movement in education. He based teaching practices on empirical evidence and measurement. Thorndike developed the theory of instrumental conditioning or the law of effect. The law of effect states that associations are strengthened when it is followed by something pleasing and associations are weakened when followed by something not pleasing. He also found that learning is done a little at a time or in increments, learning is an automatic process and its principles apply to all mammals. Thorndike’s research with Robert Woodworth on the theory of transfer found that learning one subject will only influence your ability to learn another subject if the subjects are similar. This discovery led to less emphasis on learning the classics because they found that studying the classics does not contribute to overall general intelligence. Thorndike was one of the first to say that individual differences in cognitive tasks were due to how many stimulus-response patterns a person had rather than general intellectual ability. He contributed word dictionaries that were scientifically based to determine the words and definitions used. The dictionaries were the first to take into consideration the users’ maturity level. He also integrated pictures and easier pronunciation guide into each of the definitions. Thorndike contributed arithmetic books based on learning theory. He made all the problems more realistic and relevant to what was being studied, not just to improve the general intelligence. He developed tests that were standardized to measure performance in school-related subjects. His biggest contribution to testing was the CAVD intelligence test which used a multidimensional approach to intelligence and was the first to use a ratio scale. His later work was on programmed instruction, mastery learning, and computer-based learning:

If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.

John Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) had a major influence on the development of progressive education in the United States. He believed that the classroom should prepare children to be good citizens and facilitate creative intelligence. He pushed for the creation of practical classes that could be applied outside of a school setting. He also thought that education should be student-oriented, not subject-oriented. For Dewey, education was a social experience that helped bring together generations of people. He stated that students learn by doing. He believed in an active mind that was able to be educated through observation, problem-solving, and enquiry. In his 1910 book How We Think, he emphasizes that material should be provided in a way that is stimulating and interesting to the student since it encourages original thought and problem-solving. He also stated that material should be relative to the student’s own experience.

“The material furnished by way of information should be relevant to a question that is vital in the students own experience”.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was one of the most powerful researchers in the area of developmental psychology during the 20th century. He developed the theory of cognitive development. The theory stated that intelligence developed in four different stages. The stages are the sensorimotor stage from birth to 2 years old, the preoperational state from 2 to 7 years old, the concrete operational stage from 7 to 10 years old, and the formal operational stage from 12 years old and up. He also believed that learning was constrained to the child’s cognitive development. Piaget influenced educational psychology because he was the first to believe that cognitive development was important and something that should be paid attention to in education. Most of the research on Piagetian theory was carried out by American educational psychologists.


The number of people receiving a high school and college education increased dramatically from 1920 to 1960.[8] Because very few jobs were available to teens coming out of eighth grade, there was an increase in high school attendance in the 1930s. The progressive movement in the United States took off at this time and led to the idea of progressive education. John Flanagan, an educational psychologist, developed tests for combat trainees and instructions in combat training. In 1954 the work of Kenneth Clark and his wife on the effects of segregation on black and white children was influential in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. From the 1960s to present day, educational psychology has switched from a behaviourist perspective to a more cognitive-based perspective because of the influence and development of cognitive psychology at this time.

Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner is notable for integrating Piaget’s cognitive approaches into educational psychology. He advocated for discovery learning where teachers create a problem solving environment that allows the student to question, explore and experiment. In his book ‘The Process of Education’ Bruner stated that the structure of the material and the cognitive abilities of the person are important in learning. He emphasized the importance of the subject matter. He also believed that how the subject was structured was important for the student’s understanding of the subject and that it was the goal of the teacher to structure the subject in a way that was easy for the student to understand. In the early 1960s, Bruner went to Africa to teach math and science to school children, which influenced his view as schooling as a cultural institution. Bruner was also influential in the development of MACOS, Man: a Course of Study, which was an educational program that combined anthropology and science. The programme explored human evolution and social behaviour. He also helped with the development of the head start programme. He was interested in the influence of culture on education and looked at the impact of poverty on educational development.

Benjamin Bloom

Benjamin Bloom (1903-1999) spent over 50 years at the University of Chicago, where he worked in the department of education. He believed that all students can learn. He developed the taxonomy of educational objectives. The objectives were divided into three domains:

Cognitive1. The cognitive domain deals with how we think.
2. It is divided into categories that are on a continuum from easiest to more complex.
3. The categories are knowledge or recall, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
Affective1. The affective domain deals with emotions and has 5 categories.
2. The categories are receiving phenomenon, responding to that phenomenon, valuing, organisation, and internalising values.
Psychomotor1. The psychomotor domain deals with the development of motor skills, movement, and coordination and has 7 categories that also go from simplest to most complex.
2. The 7 categories of the psychomotor domain are perception, set, guided response, mechanism, complex overt response, adaptation, and origination.

The taxonomy provided broad educational objectives that could be used to help expand the curriculum to match the ideas in the taxonomy. The taxonomy is considered to have a greater influence internationally than in the United States. Internationally, the taxonomy is used in every aspect of education from the training of the teachers to the development of testing material. Bloom believed in communicating clear learning goals and promoting an active student. He thought that teachers should provide feedback to the students on their strengths and weaknesses. Bloom also did research on college students and their problem-solving processes. He found that they differ in understanding the basis of the problem and the ideas in the problem. He also found that students differ in process of problem-solving in their approach and attitude toward the problem.

Nathaniel Gage

Nathaniel Gage (1917-2008) is an important figure in educational psychology as his research focused on improving teaching and understanding the processes involved in teaching. He edited the book Handbook of Research on Teaching (1963), which helped develop early research in teaching and educational psychology. Gage founded the Stanford Centre for Research and Development in Teaching, which contributed research on teaching as well as influencing the education of important educational psychologists.



Applied behaviour analysis, a research-based science utilising behavioural principles of operant conditioning, is effective in a range of educational settings. For example, teachers can alter student behaviour by systematically rewarding students who follow classroom rules with praise, stars, or tokens exchangeable for sundry items. Despite the demonstrated efficacy of awards in changing behaviour, their use in education has been criticised by proponents of self-determination theory, who claim that praise and other rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. There is evidence that tangible rewards decrease intrinsic motivation in specific situations, such as when the student already has a high level of intrinsic motivation to perform the goal behaviour. But the results showing detrimental effects are counterbalanced by evidence that, in other situations, such as when rewards are given for attaining a gradually increasing standard of performance, rewards enhance intrinsic motivation. Many effective therapies have been based on the principles of applied behaviour analysis, including pivotal response therapy which is used to treat autism spectrum disorders.


Among current educational psychologists, the cognitive perspective is more widely held than the behavioural perspective, perhaps because it admits causally related mental constructs such as traits, beliefs, memories, motivations, and emotions. Cognitive theories claim that memory structures determine how information is perceived, processed, stored, retrieved and forgotten. Among the memory structures theorised by cognitive psychologists are separate but linked visual and verbal systems described by Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory. Educational psychologists have used dual coding theory and cognitive load theory to explain how people learn from multimedia presentations.

The spaced learning effect, a cognitive phenomenon strongly supported by psychological research, has broad applicability within education. For example, students have been found to perform better on a test of knowledge about a text passage when a second reading of the passage is delayed rather than immediate. Educational psychology research has confirmed the applicability to the education of other findings from cognitive psychology, such as the benefits of using mnemonics for immediate and delayed retention of information.

Problem solving, according to prominent cognitive psychologists, is fundamental to learning. It resides as an important research topic in educational psychology. A student is thought to interpret a problem by assigning it to a schema retrieved from long-term memory. A problem students run into while reading is called “activation.” This is when the student’s representations of the text are present during working memory. This causes the student to read through the material without absorbing the information and being able to retain it. When working memory is absent from the reader’s representations of the working memory they experience something called “deactivation.” When deactivation occurs, the student has an understanding of the material and is able to retain information. If deactivation occurs during the first reading, the reader does not need to undergo deactivation in the second reading. The reader will only need to reread to get a “gist” of the text to spark their memory. When the problem is assigned to the wrong schema, the student’s attention is subsequently directed away from features of the problem that are inconsistent with the assigned schema. The critical step of finding a mapping between the problem and a pre-existing schema is often cited as supporting the centrality of analogical thinking to problem-solving.

Cognitive View of Intelligence

Each person has an individual profile of characteristics, abilities, and challenges that result from predisposition, learning, and development. These manifest as individual differences in intelligence, creativity, cognitive style, motivation, and the capacity to process information, communicate, and relate to others. The most prevalent disabilities found among school age children are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability, dyslexia, and speech disorder. Less common disabilities include intellectual disability, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and blindness.

Although theories of intelligence have been discussed by philosophers since Plato, intelligence testing is an invention of educational psychology, and is coincident with the development of that discipline. Continuing debates about the nature of intelligence revolve on whether it can be characterized by a single factor known as general intelligence, multiple factors (e.g. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences), or whether it can be measured at all. In practice, standardised instruments such as the Stanford-Binet IQ test and the WISC are widely used in economically developed countries to identify children in need of individualised educational treatment. Children classified as gifted are often provided with accelerated or enriched programs. Children with identified deficits may be provided with enhanced education in specific skills such as phonological awareness. In addition to basic abilities, the individual’s personality traits are also important, with people higher in conscientiousness and hope attaining superior academic achievements, even after controlling for intelligence and past performance.


Developmental psychology, and especially the psychology of cognitive development, opens a special perspective for educational psychology. This is so because education and the psychology of cognitive development converge on a number of crucial assumptions. First, the psychology of cognitive development defines human cognitive competence at successive phases of development. Education aims to help students acquire knowledge and develop skills that are compatible with their understanding and problem-solving capabilities at different ages. Thus, knowing the students’ level on a developmental sequence provides information on the kind and level of knowledge they can assimilate, which, in turn, can be used as a frame for organising the subject matter to be taught at different school grades. This is the reason why Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was so influential for education, especially mathematics and science education. In the same direction, the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development suggest that in addition to the concerns above, sequencing of concepts and skills in teaching must take account of the processing and working memory capacities that characterise successive age levels.

Second, the psychology of cognitive development involves understanding how cognitive change takes place and recognising the factors and processes which enable cognitive competence to develop. Education also capitalises on cognitive change, because the construction of knowledge presupposes effective teaching methods that would move the student from a lower to a higher level of understanding. Mechanisms such as reflection on actual or mental actions vis-à-vis alternative solutions to problems, tagging new concepts or solutions to symbols that help one recall and mentally manipulate them are just a few examples of how mechanisms of cognitive development may be used to facilitate learning.

Finally, the psychology of cognitive development is concerned with individual differences in the organization of cognitive processes and abilities, in their rate of change, and in their mechanisms of change. The principles underlying intra- and inter-individual differences could be educationally useful, because knowing how students differ in regard to the various dimensions of cognitive development, such as processing and representational capacity, self-understanding and self-regulation, and the various domains of understanding, such as mathematical, scientific, or verbal abilities, would enable the teacher to cater for the needs of the different students so that no one is left behind.


Constructivism is a category of learning theory in which emphasis is placed on the agency and prior “knowing” and experience of the learner, and often on the social and cultural determinants of the learning process. Educational psychologists distinguish individual (or psychological) constructivism, identified with Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, from social constructivism. The social constructivist paradigm views the context in which the learning occurs as central to the learning itself. It regards learning as a process of enculturation. People learn by exposure to the culture of practitioners. They observe and practice the behaviour of practitioners and ‘pick up relevant jargon, imitate behaviour, and gradually start to act in accordance with the norms of the practice’. So, a student learns to become a mathematician through exposure to mathematician using tools to solve mathematical problems. So in order to master a particular domain of knowledge it is not enough for students to learn the concepts of the domain. They should be exposed to the use of the concepts in authentic activities by the practitioners of the domain.

A dominant influence on the social constructivist paradigm is Lev Vygotsky’s work on sociocultural learning, describing how interactions with adults, more capable peers, and cognitive tools are internalized to form mental constructs. “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) is a term Vygotsky used to characterize an individual’s mental development. He believed the task individuals can do on their own do not give a complete understanding of their mental development. He originally defined the ZPD as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” He cited a famous example to make his case. Two children in school who originally can solve problems at an eight-year-old developmental level (that is, typical for children who were age 8), might be at different developmental levels. If each child received assistance from an adult, one was able to perform at a nine-year-old level and one was able to perform at a twelve-year-old level. He said “This difference between twelve and eight, or between nine and eight, is what we call the zone of proximal development.” He further said that the ZPD “defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state.” The zone is bracketed by the learner’s current ability and the ability they can achieve with the aid of an instructor of some capacity.

Vygotsky viewed the ZPD as a better way to explain the relation between children’s learning and cognitive development. Prior to the ZPD, the relation between learning and development could be boiled down to the following three major positions:

  1. Development always precedes learning (e.g. constructivism): children first need to meet a particular maturation level before learning can occur;
  2. Learning and development cannot be separated, but instead occur simultaneously (e.g. behaviourism): essentially, learning is development; and
  3. Learning and development are separate, but interactive processes (e.g. gestaltism): one process always prepares the other process, and vice versa.

Vygotsky rejected these three major theories because he believed that learning should always precede development in the ZPD. According to Vygotsky, through the assistance of a more knowledgeable other, a child is able to learn skills or aspects of a skill that go beyond the child’s actual developmental or maturational level. The lower limit of ZPD is the level of skill reached by the child working independently (also referred to as the child’s developmental level). The upper limit is the level of potential skill that the child is able to reach with the assistance of a more capable instructor. In this sense, the ZPD provides a prospective view of cognitive development, as opposed to a retrospective view that characterises development in terms of a child’s independent capabilities. The advancement through and attainment of the upper limit of the ZPD is limited by the instructional and scaffolding-related capabilities of the more knowledgeable other (MKO). The MKO is typically assumed to be an older, more experienced teacher or parent, but often can be a learner’s peer or someone their junior. The MKO need not even be a person, it can be a machine or book, or other source of visual and/or audio input.

Elaborating on Vygotsky’s theory, Jerome Bruner and other educational psychologists developed the important concept of instructional scaffolding, in which the social or information environment offers supports for learning that are gradually withdrawn as they become internalised.

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget was interested in how an organism adapts to its environment. Piaget hypothesized that infants are born with a schema operating at birth that he called “reflexes”. Piaget identified four stages in cognitive development. The four stages are:

  1. Sensorimotor stage;
  2. Pre-operational stage;
  3. Concrete operational stage; and
  4. Formal operational stage.

Conditioning and learning

To understand the characteristics of learners in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, educational psychology develops and applies theories of human development. Often represented as stages through which people pass as they mature, developmental theories describe changes in mental abilities (cognition), social roles, moral reasoning, and beliefs about the nature of knowledge.

For example, educational psychologists have conducted research on the instructional applicability of Jean Piaget’s theory of development, according to which children mature through four stages of cognitive capability. Piaget hypothesized that children are not capable of abstract logical thought until they are older than about 11 years, and therefore younger children need to be taught using concrete objects and examples. Researchers have found that transitions, such as from concrete to abstract logical thought, do not occur at the same time in all domains. A child may be able to think abstractly about mathematics, but remain limited to concrete thought when reasoning about human relationships. Perhaps Piaget’s most enduring contribution is his insight that people actively construct their understanding through a self-regulatory process.

Piaget proposed a developmental theory of moral reasoning in which children progress from a naïve understanding of morality based on behaviour and outcomes to a more advanced understanding based on intentions. Piaget’s views of moral development were elaborated by Lawrence Kohlberg into a stage theory of moral development. There is evidence that the moral reasoning described in stage theories is not sufficient to account for moral behaviour. For example, other factors such as modelling (as described by the social cognitive theory of morality) are required to explain bullying.

Rudolf Steiner’s model of child development interrelates physical, emotional, cognitive, and moral development in developmental stages similar to those later described by Piaget.

Developmental theories are sometimes presented not as shifts between qualitatively different stages, but as gradual increments on separate dimensions. Development of epistemological beliefs (beliefs about knowledge) have been described in terms of gradual changes in people’s belief in: certainty and permanence of knowledge, fixedness of ability, and credibility of authorities such as teachers and experts. People develop more sophisticated beliefs about knowledge as they gain in education and maturity.


Motivation is an internal state that activates, guides and sustains behaviour. Motivation can have several impacting effects on how students learn and how they behave towards subject matter:

  • Provide direction towards goals.
  • Enhance cognitive processing abilities and performance.
  • Direct behaviour toward particular goals.
  • Lead to increased effort and energy.
  • Increase initiation of and persistence in activities.

Educational psychology research on motivation is concerned with the volition or will that students bring to a task, their level of interest and intrinsic motivation, the personally held goals that guide their behaviour, and their belief about the causes of their success or failure. As intrinsic motivation deals with activities that act as their own rewards, extrinsic motivation deals with motivations that are brought on by consequences or punishments. A form of attribution theory developed by Bernard Weiner describes how students’ beliefs about the causes of academic success or failure affect their emotions and motivations. For example, when students attribute failure to lack of ability, and ability is perceived as uncontrollable, they experience the emotions of shame and embarrassment and consequently decrease effort and show poorer performance. In contrast, when students attribute failure to lack of effort, and effort is perceived as controllable, they experience the emotion of guilt and consequently increase effort and show improved performance.

The self-determination theory (SDT) was developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. SDT focuses on the importance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in driving human behaviour and posits inherent growth and development tendencies. It emphasizes the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined. When applied to the realm of education, the self-determination theory is concerned primarily with promoting in students an interest in learning, a value of education, and a confidence in their own capacities and attributes.

Motivational theories also explain how learners’ goals affect the way they engage with academic tasks. Those who have mastery goals strive to increase their ability and knowledge. Those who have performance approach goals strive for high grades and seek opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. Those who have performance avoidance goals are driven by fear of failure and avoid situations where their abilities are exposed. Research has found that mastery goals are associated with many positive outcomes such as persistence in the face of failure, preference for challenging tasks, creativity, and intrinsic motivation. Performance avoidance goals are associated with negative outcomes such as poor concentration while studying, disorganised studying, less self-regulation, shallow information processing, and test anxiety. Performance approach goals are associated with positive outcomes, and some negative outcomes such as an unwillingness to seek help and shallow information processing.

Locus of control is a salient factor in the successful academic performance of students. During the 1970s and ’80s, Cassandra B. Whyte did significant educational research studying locus of control as related to the academic achievement of students pursuing higher education coursework. Much of her educational research and publications focused upon the theories of Julian B. Rotter in regard to the importance of internal control and successful academic performance. Whyte reported that individuals who perceive and believe that their hard work may lead to more successful academic outcomes, instead of depending on luck or fate, persist and achieve academically at a higher level. Therefore, it is important to provide education and counselling in this regard.


Instructional design, the systematic design of materials, activities, and interactive environments for learning, is broadly informed by educational psychology theories and research. For example, in defining learning goals or objectives, instructional designers often use a taxonomy of educational objectives created by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues. Bloom also researched mastery learning, an instructional strategy in which learners only advance to a new learning objective after they have mastered its prerequisite objectives. Bloom discovered that a combination of mastery learning with one-to-one tutoring is highly effective, producing learning outcomes far exceeding those normally achieved in classroom instruction. Gagné, another psychologist, had earlier developed an influential method of task analysis in which a terminal learning goal is expanded into a hierarchy of learning objectives connected by prerequisite relationships. The following list of technological resources incorporate computer-aided instruction and intelligence for educational psychologists and their students:

  • Intelligent tutoring system.
  • Cognitive tutor.
  • Cooperative learning.
  • Collaborative learning.
  • Problem-based learning.
  • Computer-supported collaborative learning.
  • Constructive alignment.

Technology is essential to the field of educational psychology, not only for the psychologist themselves as far as testing, organisation, and resources, but also for students. Educational Psychologists who reside in the K-12 setting focus the majority of their time on Special Education students. It has been found that students with disabilities learning through technology such as iPad applications and videos are more engaged and motivated to learn in the classroom setting. Liu et al. explain that learning-based technology allows for students to be more focused, and learning is more efficient with learning technologies. The authors explain that learning technology also allows for students with social-emotional disabilities to participate in distance learning.



Research on classroom management and pedagogy is conducted to guide teaching practice and form a foundation for teacher education programmes. The goals of classroom management are to create an environment conducive to learning and to develop students’ self-management skills. More specifically, classroom management strives to create positive teacher-student and peer relationships, manage student groups to sustain on-task behaviour, and use counselling and other psychological methods to aid students who present persistent psycho-social problems.

Introductory educational psychology is a commonly required area of study in most North American teacher education programmes. When taught in that context, its content varies, but it typically emphasizes learning theories (especially cognitively oriented ones), issues about motivation, assessment of students’ learning, and classroom management. A developing Wikibook about educational psychology gives more detail about the educational psychology topics that are typically presented in preservice teacher education.

  • Special education.
  • Secondary Education.
  • Lesson plan.



In order to become an educational psychologist, students can complete an undergraduate degree in their choice. They then must go to graduate school to study education psychology, counselling psychology, and/ or school counselling. Most students today are also receiving their doctorate degrees in order to hold the “psychologist” title. Educational psychologists work in a variety of settings. Some work in university settings where they carry out research on the cognitive and social processes of human development, learning and education. Educational psychologists may also work as consultants in designing and creating educational materials, classroom programmes and online courses. Educational psychologists who work in k–12 school settings (closely related are school psychologists in the US and Canada) are trained at the master’s and doctoral levels. In addition to conducting assessments, school psychologists provide services such as academic and behavioural intervention, counselling, teacher consultation, and crisis intervention. However, school psychologists are generally more individual-oriented towards students.

Many high schools and colleges are increasingly offering educational psychology courses, with some colleges offering it as a general education requirement. Similarly, colleges offer students opportunities to obtain a PhD. in Educational Psychology.

Within the UK, students must hold a degree that is accredited by the British Psychological Society (either undergraduate or at Masters level) before applying for a three-year doctoral course that involves further education, placement, and a research thesis.

Employment Outlook

Anticipated to grow by 18-26%, employment for psychologists in the United States is expected to grow faster than most occupations in 2014. One in four psychologists is employed in educational settings. In the United States, the median salary for psychologists in primary and secondary schools is US$58,360 as of May 2004.

In recent decades, the participation of women as professional researchers in North American educational psychology has risen dramatically.

Methods of Research

Educational psychology, as much as any other field of psychology heavily relies on a balance of pure observation and quantitative methods in psychology. The study of education generally combines the studies of history, sociology, and ethics with theoretical approaches. Smeyers and Depaepe explain that historically, the study of education and child-rearing have been associated with the interests of policymakers and practitioners within the educational field, however, the recent shift to sociology and psychology has opened the door for new findings in education as a social science. Now being its own academic discipline, educational psychology has proven to be helpful for social science researchers.

Quantitative research is the backing to most observable phenomena in psychology. This involves observing, creating, and understanding distribution of data based upon the study’s subject matter. Researchers use particular variables to interpret their data distributions from their research and employ statistics as a way of creating data tables and analysing their data. Psychology has moved from the “common sense” reputations initially posed by Thomas Reid to the methodology approach comparing independent and dependent variables through natural observation, experiments, or combinations of the two. Though results are still, with statistical methods, objectively true based upon significance variables or p- values.

What is Metapsychology?


Metapsychology (Greek: meta ‘beyond, transcending’, and ψυχολογία ‘psychology‘) is that aspect of any psychological theory which refers to the structure of the theory itself (hence the prefix “meta”) rather than to the entity it describes.

The psychology is about the psyche; the metapsychology is about the psychology. The term is used mostly in discourse about psychoanalysis, the psychology developed by Sigmund Freud, which was at its time regarded as a branch of science (with roots in the work of Freud’s scientific mentors and predecessors, especially Helmholtz, Brucke, Charcot, and Janet), or, more recently, as a hermeneutics of understanding (with roots in Freud’s literary sources, especially Sophocles and, to a lesser extent, Goethe and Shakespeare). Interest on the possible scientific status of psychoanalysis has been renewed in the emerging discipline of neuropsychoanalysis, whose major exemplar is Mark Solms. The hermeneutic vision of psychoanalysis is the focus of influential works by Donna Orange.

Freud and the als ob Problem

Psychoanalytic metapsychology is concerned with the fundamental structure and concepts of Freudian theory. Sigmund Freud first used the term on 13 February 1896 in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, to refer to his addition of unconscious processes to the conscious ones of traditional psychology. On 10 March 1898, he wrote to Fiess: “It seems to me that (German: als ob) the theory of wish fulfilment has brought only the psychological solution and not the biological – or, rather, metapsychical – one. (I am going to ask you seriously, by the way, whether I may use the name metapsychology for my psychology that leads behind consciousness).”

Three years after completing his unpublished Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud’s optimism had completely vanished. In a letter dated September 22 of that year he told Fliess: “I am not at all in disagreement with you, not at all inclined to leave psychology hanging in the air without an organic basis. But apart from this conviction, I do not know how to go on, neither theoretically nor therapeutically, and therefore must behave as if [als läge] only the psychological were under consideration. Why I cannot fit it together [the organic and the psychological] I have not even begun to fathom”. “When, in his ‘Autobiographical Study’ of 1925, Freud called his metapsychology a ‘speculative superstructure’…the elements of which could be abandoned or changed once proven inadequate, he was, in the terminology of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, proposing a psychology als ob or as if – a heuristic model of mental functioning that did not necessarily correspond with external reality.”

A salient example of Freud’s own metapsychology is his characterisation of psychoanalysis as a “simultaneously closed system, fundamentally unrelated and impervious to the external world and as an open system inherently connected and responsive to environmental influence.

In the 1910s, Freud wrote a series of twelve essays, to be collected as Preliminaries to a Metapsychology. Five of these were published independently under the titles: “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” “Repression,” “The Unconscious,” “A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams,” and “Mourning and Melancholia.” The remaining seven remained unpublished, an expression of Freud’s ambivalence about his own attempts to articulate the whole of his vision of psychoanalysis. In 1919 he wrote to Lou Andreas-Salome, “Where is my Metapsychology? In the first place it remains unwritten”. In 1920 he published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a text with metaphysical ambitions.

Midcentury psychoanalyst David Rapaport defined the term thus: “Books on psychoanalysis usually deal with its clinical theory… there exists, however, a fragmentary—yet consistent—general theory of psychoanalysis, which comprises the premises of the special (clinical) theory, the concepts built on it, and the generalizations derived from it… named metapsychology.”

Freud’s Metapsychology

  • The topographical point of view: the psyche operates at different levels of consciousness – unconscious, preconscious, and conscious.
  • The dynamic point of view: the notion that there are psychological forces which may conflict with one another at work in the psyche.
  • The economic point of view: the psyche contains charges of energy which are transferred from one element of the psyche to another.
  • The structural point of view: the psyche consists of configurations of psychological processes which operate in different ways and reveal different rates of change – the ego, the id, and the superego.
  • The genetic point of view: the origins – or “genesis” – of psychological processes can be found in developmentally previous psychological processes.

Ego psychologist Heinz Hartmann also added ‘the adaptive” point of view’ to Freud’s metapsychology, although Lacan who interpreted metapsychology as the symbolic, the Real, and the imaginary, said “the dimension discovered by analysis is the opposite of anything which progresses through adaptation”


Freud’s metapsychology has faced criticism, mainly from ego psychology. Object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein, shifted the focus away from intrapsychic conflicts and towards the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, leading to a unifocal theory of development that focused on the mother-child relationship. Most ego psychologists saw the structural point of view, Freud’s latest metapsychology, as the most important. Some proposed that only the structural point of view be kept in metapsychology, because the topographical point of view made an unnecessary distinction between the unconscious and the preconscious (Arlow & Brenner) and because the economic point of view was viewed as redundant (Gill).